During the 2014 campaign for the Minnesota House District 17A, voters' mail boxes were flooded by mail campaigns by outside interest groups on both sides praising or blaming the candidates for various boons or threats to the North Star State.
From the right, allegations of DFL self-dealing formed a major theme, with the State Legislative Office Building as the centerpiece, along with a feast of real and imagined perks of office.
Over the weekend, news came in of a new job for David Tomassoni as a lobbyist for the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS); Bluestem thinks that the job description must include providing content for the copy for the Minnesota Jobs Coalition and Minnesota Action Network's 2016 independent expenditure mailings against both Senate and House DFL candidates.
According to RAMS's 2012 990 filing with the IRS, the total compensation package for the earlier director of the organization was $93,304. The Star Tribune's Hot Dish Blog reports that Tomassoni's compensation will reflect his essentially part-time status:
He won't start in his new position until the end of the legislative session and will take an unpaid leave of absence during future legislative sessions. He will earn $45,000 per year once the unpaid time is factored in.
Here's the 2012 document, via Guidestar, that reflects the salaries and activity of RAMS:
Aaron Brown writes in Iron Range senator plans to hold office while leading public sector lobbying group:
In a Mesabi Daily News story over the weekend, Tomassoni confirmed that he would be starting the RAMS job after the end of the current legislative session. He said he would take a leave of absence from the position during subsequent sessions, during which RAMS would hire a lobbyist to perform what would otherwise be his normal duties.
Ballotpedia explains RAMS succinctly:The Range Association of Municipalities and Schools is a government sector lobbying association. The association lobbies on behalf of public entities, and public money is used in part for this, according to the Minnesota State Auditor.
The sole function of RAMS is to advocate on behalf of small governments on the Iron Range for their specific legislative goals, while also advising them on grant applications and other administrative tasks. It's funded by the local governments and also by local iron ore production tax revenue. The outgoing director is Ron Dicklich, himself a former state senator. But unlike Dicklich, Tomassoni is going to try to hold both positions simultaneously.
Is it legal? Yes, probably. Though it shouldn't be.
Is it ethical? Absolutely not. This is a clear conflict of interest. Further, and more importantly, it's the formalization of a troubling trend in Iron Range political leadership that's been building for a generation. Who are our elected leaders? Who are the lobbyists? Are things being done for money? For friendship? For power? The earthy world of Old School Iron Range political organization had a place in the 20th Century, when workers had no allies in fighting for their rights. That tradition, however, has now been wholly coopted by monied forces to preserve monied interests.
Political watchers often lament the cozy relationship between lobbyists and elected officials. Lobbyists often seem like furniture in the offices of state legislators from both parties. We grumble when former lawmakers cash out their connections and influence as lobbyists after leaving office. Since 1980, every outgoing state senator from the Iron Range has signed on as a registered lobbyist. But what's happening here with Sen. Tomassoni essentially ends the distinction between lobbying and serving in public office. . . .
Read the rest at Brown's always excellent Up North blog at the Star Tribune.
An attack against DFL self-dealing practically writes itself. The behavior isnt simply unethical, it's politically stupid as well. At the very least, Tomassoni should be either unethical or political awkward, but not both.
He needs to pick one, for while voter turnout in a presidential year tends to lift DFL fortunes, as it may in 2016, voters across the state demonstrated last year that they're able to cast a ballot for a Democrat in a statewide race, yet spurn the DFL legislative choice.
Even fellow Ranger Senate Majority Leader Bakk is putting his response in neutral. From a statement issued by the Senate Communications office:
“As Sen. Tomassoni has publicly indicated, he has received the legal opinion of private counsel,” Sen. Bakk said. “It is my understanding that Sen. Tomassoni and his private counsel are promptly requesting an advisory opinion from the Campaign Finance Board to determine if under 10A.07 a conflict exists by his acceptance of the Executive Director position at Range Association of Municipalities and Schools,” Sen. Bakk said. “The Campaign Finance Board is the institution intended to resolve and advise on potential conflicts of interest concerning public officials, when they return their advisory opinion Sen. Tomassoni will have clear direction.”
Unfortunately for Senate Majority Leader Bakk, he alsoappears to believe that once the board has dealt with questions, that resolution means that the ethical question goes away. Perhaps that's what comes from living in one of those solid districts whose voters are inundated by outside interested mail campaigns.
Common Cause MN tweeted about an additional angle:
We recommend that if senators and representatives in both parties wish to restore public trust in the Minnesota Legislature, start acting in a way that deserves the public's trust.
Photo: Senator Tomassoni, who chairs the Finance - Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Budget Division Committee in the chamber.
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