It appears the first job David Tomassoni has to reckon with this year will be his own.
As chair of the Senate Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Finance Committee, the Chisholm DFLer’s portfolio includes legislative efforts to boost employment opportunities for Minnesotans. But, for the moment, it’s Tomassoni’s new gig that’s getting all the attention.
Tomassoni has been named the next executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS), a regional public sector organization that lobbies the state on behalf of local government entities. The potential for conflict, with a state official receiving a salary from a group that lobbies the state, is clear; less obvious is how Tomassoni’s situation is governed by state law.
The Senate DFL has put that very question to the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, according to a statement issued by Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, who said on Monday that Tomassoni — assisted by private counsel — had requested an advisory opinion on the matter.
“The Campaign Finance Board is the institution intended to resolve and advise on potential conflicts of interest concerning public officials,” Bakk said. “When they return their advisory opinion Sen. Tomassoni will have clear direction.”
The statute in question, according to that press release, governs potential conflicts of interest for public officials forced to “make a decision that would substantially affect the official’s financial interests or those of an associated business.” Even if that condition is met, state law favors disclosure over recusal: The statute merely requires that the official issue a letter or, failing that, a verbal statement to his or her immediate superior indicating that a conflict could exist.
Tomassoni, a former insurance agent, now lists “legislator” as his only occupation on an economic impact statement filed with the state. He told the Mesabi Daily News that he would not take over at RAMS until the close of the 2015 session, and planned to take an unpaid leave of absence during future legislative sessions. Tomassoni’s annual salary for the RAMS position will be about $45,000, and he has said the organization would need to hire a full-time lobbyist to represent its interests.
RAMS currently has just one lobbyist on retainer, Ronald Dicklich, who is a former DFL senator. Dicklich also lobbies for Great River Energy and the AFSCME Council 65 labor union, and was considered a front-runner to replace Tony Sertich as head of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB). Several Range-area lawmakers, including Tomassoni, backed Dicklich for the IRRRB position, which ultimately went to Mark Phillips, formerly commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
While the state campaign finance board undertakes an official review, lawmakers and political commentators have not hesitated to go public with their own scrutiny. Somewhat surprisingly, the news drew opposite reactions from Senate Minority Leader David Hann and a pair of powerful House Republicans. Hann issued a statement condemning Tomassoni’s accepting of dual roles, saying the situation marked a clear conflict of interest.
“If this was a trial balloon,” Hann said, “Sen. Tomassoni needs to call it back.”
Hann’s statement indicated that Tomassoni intended to “take a job as a lobbyist” while still serving in the Legislature, though in fact, the Democrat has not said he would lobby the state.
On the reverse side, GOP Reps. Pat Garofalo (Farmington) and Rod Hamilton (Mountain Lake) came to Tomassoni’s defense, issuing a joint statement to argue that service in the Legislature should not preclude someone from taking a job “that does not involve lobbying.”
“In all our interactions with Senator Tomassoni, he has upheld the highest standards of ethics and integrity,” they said. “We disagree with those who have been critical of the Senator’s new employment.”
Garofalo and Hamilton, chairs of the corresponding House committees for economic development and agriculture, respectively, will be expected to work closely with Tomassoni this session.
The career choice got less sympathy from the Mankato Free Press editorial board, which wrote that Tomassoni’s situation, if left unaltered, “will harm the reputation of the Senate and the DFL leadership.”
Likewise, Iron Range blogger Aaron Brown took a strong stance against Tomassoni’s attempt at doubling his responsibilities. In an interview, Brown said the worst fallout from the situation could be the setting of a precedent, with legislators becoming attractive hires for groups that lobby the state.
“It feels more like this organization has a senator on retainer, which I think is something we want to avoid,” said Brown, a DFL activist.
Brown guessed that Tomassoni would try to press ahead — “[Tomassoni] is stubborn, he’s from the Range,” he said — but thought political pressure could eventually lead him to change his mind.
“Even Tom Bakk was pretty businesslike in saying they were referring this to the campaign finance board,” Brown said. “It’s hard to find anyone saying, ‘This is a great idea.’”