In some ways, the gutted shell of the state capitol was a pretty good metaphor for the state of Minnesota's policy making. Inside Cass Gilbert's heap, the bones of Minnesota House are showing, and it's not pretty.
Case in point? Early Tuesday (4:00 a.m.), Minnesota Public Radio's Brian Bakst reported in House Speaker Daudt sued by debt collectors, was tardy on taxes:
Debt collectors sued Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt three times in the past year over thousands of dollars in credit card charges, and he also was late paying taxes for land he owns, MPR News has discovered through public court and property records. . . .
"Like many Minnesotans who struggled as a result of the recession, I lost my job and faced credit card debt," Daudt said in the statement. "This issue is now resolved and there is no outstanding debt. When I stand up for middle-class families who are feeling squeezed, it is not a talking point, it is real life."
So far as that goes, we agree with Daudt, and unlike most people we see commenting, we don't see Daudt's debts as the significant part of this story, nor the slip between Republican "government and families should live within their means" rhetoric and the Speaker's inaction.
Rather, it's this part of Bakst's report:
. . . [I]t subjects him to scrutiny over whether he's received special treatment because of his political position.
The other two lawsuits took abrupt turns last spring after default judgments were entered against Daudt. Messerli & Kramer PA, a law firm that also has a major lobbying presence at the state Capitol, reversed course shortly after winning the judgments for its client and urged a judge to wipe away the rulings, a rare concession in these types of actions.
On Tuesday morning Daudt spoke with MPR's Cathy Wurzer. He said he did not believe he received special treatment because of his position in state government.
"No, in fact I don't think that they even knew that. And like I said, the debt had been paid in full, and that's why it was dismissed. And I assume that's normal practice," Daudt said.
In all three cases another Capitol lobbyist has been involved on Daudt's behalf, according to public court filings. That lobbyist, attorney R. Reid LeBeau II, is often turned to by the House Republican caucus for work on election law and ethics cases, though it isn't clear who has paid his fees in Daudt's personal finance cases. . . .
Was any law or rule broken? We doubt it--but like the state capitol, the case and others involving legislators from both parties suggest that Minnesota's lobbying and legislative laws and rules are in need of reconstruction. The stonework is crumbling and ordinary citizens can be forgiven if they infer that elected officials receive special treatment.
This is a separate, though related, issue from campaign finance reform.
A few hours ago, Bakst reported in Daudt says he received no special treatment on debt lawsuits. From the MPR website:
Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt insists he got no special treatment from debt collectors who sued him over late credit card payments.
Daudt settled the most recent lawsuit with a credit card company Monday, just as the Legislature was gearing up to start its new session. He hasn't said how much he agreed to pay of the $9,300 U.S. Bank was after. Last year, another company sued Daudt and had judgments entered against him. Those judgments went away soon after and the case was abandoned.
Now some are questioning whether Daudt got a better deal than other debtors. And they want to know if the law firm in those cases played favorites because it also has a lobbying wing.
Daudt rejects that notion.
"All it is is speculation," Daudt said. "There is a firm apparently that has a debt collection arm and a lobbying arm. I'm quite certain the debt collection arm had no clue who I was."
Well then. It's not as if his name appears daily in Minnesota media. Bakst looked to see if Daudt's experience was the norm for others going through collections:
A look at hundreds of similar debt cases found that the way Daudt's cases were handled by the court was rare. The earlier two judgments were vacated and then dismissed with prejudice, meaning the credit card company represented by Messerli and Kramer couldn't come after him again.
Hicks challenged MPR News' findings but wouldn't produce the firm's own figures. MPR News looked at more than 650 cases filed in state courts over six months and found less than a handful where judgments were vacated like Daudt's. Hicks said that's surprising to him.
Read both stories at MPR. For more on the reconstruction's impact, check out MPR reporter Tim Pugmire's On Legislature's opening day, Capitol remodeling makes room for debate.
Here's the complete House opening session:
Photo: cropped version of Glen Stubbe's amazing photos accompanying the tweet, "House Speaker
@kdaudt had a challenging day today at first day of the #Mnleg session. Lots more tough days coming." View the full images here.
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