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Senate ethics panel stumped again

Mike Mosedale//November 7, 2014

Senate ethics panel stumped again

Mike Mosedale//November 7, 2014

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion characterized the accusation as “truly just gossip and hearsay.” (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)
Sen. Bobby Joe Champion characterized the accusation as “truly just gossip and hearsay.” (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)

Did Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion bully the Minneapolis school district into awarding no-bid contract to an ineffective nonprofit educational group — possibly for the benefit of friends or family — by threatening to withhold critical state aid?

Or were the two state senators from Minneapolis — and the upper chamber’s only African-Americans — merely acting as earnest advocates for a community based-solution to address one of the district’s most nettlesome problems: finding a way to close the persistent achievement gap between white and black students?

The Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct wrestled with those issues for nearly six hours on Wednesday, with lengthy parsing of sworn statements from top district officials, spirited denunciations of the use of the anonymous sources in newspaper articles and several lawyerly detours into the maddening thickets of the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

Sen. Jeff Hayden called the allegations against him “a baseless attack on my integrity.” (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)
Sen. Jeff Hayden called the allegations against him “a baseless attack on my integrity.” (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)

As was the case when the subcommittee last met two weeks earlier, no consensus was reached between the four members of the panel, which once again split along partisan lines.

Senate President Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, argued that there were not enough facts to justify further inquiries into whether the Hayden and Champion crossed ethical lines in their advocacy on behalf of Community Standards Initiative (CSI).

By contrast, Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen pressed for further investigation, saying the panel needs to collect sworn testimony from Minneapolis school officials.

“I don’t know how we can move forward without more information,” said Ingebrigtsen.

The complaints — filed by Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and five fellow Republicans — are based on an allegation from an anonymous source who told the Star Tribune that Hayden and Champion threatened to withhold state aid if the district didn’t fund CSI.

Both senators have vehemently denied that claim, as well as the suggestion that they advocated on behalf of CSI because it would benefit friends or family. Hayden called it “a baseless attack on my integrity.”

“There are no facts in this scurrilous complaint,” said Charlie Nauen, Hayden’s attorney. “Today is judgment day, but not for Senator Hayden. … Today is judgment day for Senator Hann and his co-complainants.”

After the ethics panel deadlocked in an initial examination of the complaint against Hayden, Nauen noted, it provided Hann with two weeks to produce more substantial evidence. Hann subsequently sent a list of questions to 18 Minneapolis school officials — including the nine members of the school board.

Nothing contained in the affidavits provided by the three top officials who responded to inquiries bolstered the complaints, said Nauen, who pointed out that school board chairman Dick Mammen explicitly denied the accusation.

“At no time in any of these conversations with me did Senator Hayden or Senator Champion threaten to withhold state aid,” Mammen wrote in his statement. Mammen also stated that none of his fellow board members informed him of such threats.

In the most detailed of the three accounts, James Grathwol, the district’s lobbyist, said the district resisted efforts by Hayden and Champion during the Legislature’s 2013 budget deliberations to set aside $1 million for CSI. Grathwol said school officials believed such an earmark posed a risk to the district’s “fiscal interests and larger goal of an uneventful reinstatement of integration revenue and reforms.”

After subsequent discussions with Hayden and Champion, according to Grathwol, Superintendent Bernedeia Johnson agreed to dedicate a portion of the integration revenue for community based organizations — $500,000 over the biennium. In exchange, he said, Hayden and Champion dropped the proposed amendment.

“[Johnson] thought the project could be better aligned with school district priorities and more accountable if it were performed under a contract,” Grathwol stated.

In her account, Johnson did not explicitly address the allegations of threats but said she “always believed they were advocating for a program because they believed the district should partner with the community to improve the results for our children.”

Nonetheless, Johnson said she had misgivings about CSI’s “capacity to achieve the results they were envisioning.” At a meeting last January, Hayden and Champion “expressed frustration that the CSI contract had not been finalized,” Johnson stated, and she “decided to give CSI a final opportunity to demonstrate the capacity to deliver results.”

“Although I continued to be concerned about the organizational capacity of CSI, I felt it was worth the risk to empower our community organizations,” she said in the statement.

In May, the school board approved a $350,000 contract with CSI. That contract was subsequently terminated on the grounds CSI failed to meet performance benchmarks. The north Minneapolis nonprofit received $47,000 in payments before the cancellation.

In the ethics panel’s deliberations, Lourey said the three sworn statements did not advance the claims in the complaint.

“There is still nothing before our committee but an unnamed source that has never come forward. And there is an additional sworn affidavit from the board chair that there were no threats or bullying or intimidation directed toward him,” said Lourey.

Ingebrigtsen and Fischbach agreed that the statements did not establish probable cause for an ethics violation but pressed for further investigation, arguing that the panel should demand formal responses from the rest of the school board and other top district brass before dismissing the complaint.

For his part, Champion, in his first appearance before the subcommittee, pushed back forcefully, characterizing the accusation as “truly just gossip and hearsay,” and chastising Hann for not doing more research before “our names have been muddied up.”

Several observers who attended the crowded hearing said they were dissatisfied with the panel’s actions.

“It was a mockery of justice, a dog and pony show,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and co-founder Black Advocates for Education, a newly formed group focused on racial disparities in educational outcomes.

Levy-Pounds — who said they she had good relationship with both Hayden and Johnson “until all this exploded” — faulted the Democrats on the panel for not pushing more aggressively for answers about CSI. She said the panel ought to subpoena Superintendent Johnson because, in her response, “she never outright said that she never had been threatened.”

“It’s particularly disheartening because so many of us [with BAE] have supported the DFL Party. It’s very painful that our concerns are not being taken seriously,” she said. “It sends the message that at the end of the day, they’re not interested in justice.”

Levy-Pounds said she has long been concerned about the school district’s contracting practices, which she believes have not served the district’s most disadvantaged students. She called the CSI contract “an example of how there’s a breakdown in terms of leadership in the Minneapolis school district.”

Likewise, Kenneth Eban, another member of BAE who attended the hearing, faulted the DFLers on the panel for not pressing more aggressively for answers.

“I was really hoping for more honesty and I was disappointed at how partisan it became,” said Eban, a political science major at the University of Minnesota. “It didn’t seem like anyone was super concerned about what happened with the CSI contract. It seemed like the DFLers didn’t really want to get more information from the school board and it seemed like the Republicans were just hell bent on trying to make an example of Hayden and Champion.”

“We want to know the truth so we can understand how the game is played,” said Eban. “Senator Champion had a very convincing defense of himself. If Senator Hann had made his argument with the same passion, we might be a little closer to finding out what really happened.”

While Eban said he does not view the controversy over CSI contract in racial terms, that’s not the case with some of the two senators’ most fervent backers.

In a front page commentary about the first Hayden hearing, Al McFarlane, the veteran black journalist and editor of Insight News, characterized the complaint as a politically motivated attack designed to discourage and demoralize black voters. Race, he wrote, is “the elephant in the room.”

“As often as not, the white press and reactionary white interest groups throw a bunch of mud on the wall, hoping that something will stick,” McFarlane said in an interview. “It’s par for the course. It’s what we expect.”

McFarlane said he expects Hayden and Champion will be vindicated. “At the end of the day, this will strengthen both of the senators and the community. Black people — and people of goodwill — will see this for what is,” said McFarlane.

He expressed unadulterated admiration for the two senators, whom he referred to as “fearless and principled” in their efforts to bring more resources to address problems within the black community.

After a protracted back and forth, the ethics panel tabled the CSI-related complaints against both senators. It remains unclear when, if ever, the subcommittee will take up the matter.

The panel was also flummoxed in its efforts to address a separate complaint against Hayden involving another troubled nonprofit group, Community Action of Minneapolis. In the wake of an audit from the Department of Human Services that found widespread financial improprieties, DHS and the Department of Commerce canceled its contract with CAM, which provides weatherization assistance to the poor.

In their complaint, Hann and his fellow Republicans contend that Hayden — who served on CAM’s board of directors before appointing his wife, Terri, as his alternate — accepted inappropriate travel perks from CAM.

While Pappas and Lourey argued that the panel should forestall further inquiries until official investigations are completed. While the audit is public information, they noted, much of the supporting documentation is not available through the state agencies because of the ongoing inquires.

Hann said he was told by a DHS auditor that Hayden did not reimburse CAM for a $749 plane ticket to New York City — evidence, in his view, that confirms the accusation that Hayden accepted perks from the scandal-plagued nonprofit.

Hayden did not testify about that matter on Wednesday. Nauen, his attorney, said Hayden “wants to get to the bottom of all this but he doesn’t want to do it in a piecemeal way.”

“We’re happy to answer the question when the investigations are complete,” Nauen said. “What it’s going to show is there absolutely not basis for the ethics complaint against my client.”

He also said the Star Tribune subsequently agreed to modify a story that said evidence of that trip “contradicted” Hayden’s prior denials of wrongdoing in connection with CAM. Testifying last month, Hayden said he received no per diem or cash payments from CAM and said he was “reimbursed for some but not all expenses.”

After lengthy haggling, the panel ultimately agreed to reconsider the CAM complaint once the Department of Commerce concludes its investigation.

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