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Panel dismisses Kahn complaint against McNamara

Mike Mullen//July 2, 2015

Panel dismisses Kahn complaint against McNamara

Mike Mullen//July 2, 2015

Rep. Phyllis Kahn told the House Ethics Committee she had felt threatened by Rep. Denny McNamara’s emotional outburst and said her fear extended to the possibility of violence. (File photo)
Rep. Phyllis Kahn told the House Ethics Committee she had felt threatened by Rep. Denny McNamara’s emotional outburst and said her fear extended to the possibility of violence. (File photo)

An ethics hearing involving two of the Minnesota House of Representatives best-known characters seemed to hinge on complex questions only tangentially related to the matter at hand.

What’s the difference between a limited liability partnership and an incorporated business? When did Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, sell the nursery business he founded to his son? How good is Rep. Phyllis Kahn’s (DFL-Minneapolis) memory of the April 21 House Ways and Means Committee hearing?

These details probably mattered very little in the end. For Kahn’s ethics complaint against McNamara to advance, she needed to win over one of two Republican voting members of the House Ethics Committee, but both took a dim view of the merits of Kahn’s claim from the start.

Reps. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, and Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, both voted against a finding of probable cause during Tuesday’s hearing, halting the complaint process without further discussion. Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, supported opening an investigation, and Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, seemed troubled by what had taken place but ultimately abstained from voting.

The heart of the complaint focused on a closed-door meeting in McNamara’s office during one of the final days of the regular session. There, confronted with false information that he believed could do damage to his family, McNamara raised his voice to forcefully eject Kahn and Brian Rice, a lobbyist and close associate of Kahn’s, from his office, along with instructions that Rice would never be welcome there again.

McNamara admitted Tuesday that his voice was “extremely loud” during the brief, intense conversation, but he and Rep. Dennis Smith, R-Maple Grove, who was also present, both contend that the most heated words were all directed at Rice, and not Kahn, the ethics complainant.

McNamara’s attorney in the ethics case, Reid LeBeau, introduced a line of questioning that sought to explain why McNamara had become so upset.

The dispute that occurred that day had grown out of a session-long debate over a dedicated revenue stream for North Mississippi Park, a Minneapolis park that had benefited from a Metropolitan Council tax collection earmark first crafted by Kahn.

This session, legislators, including McNamara and Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who served as a witness for McNamara, sought to eliminate that provision, redistributing the revenues equally among area parks. The legislative change was ultimately successful, and the earmark no longer exists effective July 1.

In response to that push, McNamara alleges, there was a coordinated threat that the city’s parks department might stop doing business with Hoffman and McNamara, the nursery business he helped found and later sold to his son. Nearly overcome by his emotions, the seven-term GOP lawmaker, who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, testified that he was the subject of a “witch hunt,” and thought Kahn and Rice, the lead lobbyist for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, had “gone after” his son’s business.

“This was an attack on 201 legislators — that we can’t be citizen legislators, and have our families and businesses outside this place,” McNamara said.

McNamara said he lost his temper after Rice and Kahn had alleged that he was still the president of the nursery business, and he produced records that indicated it had belonged to his son Michael since 2004. (McNamara continued to receive monthly payments related to the sale through 2011.) Dehn asked McNamara if his current operation, Hoffman and McNamara LLP, a real estate company, leases any of its land for the growing of trees that are later sold to the nursery business. McNamara demurred.

“We have formal and informal leases with five different property operators,” he said, offering no more details about the business arrangements.

Kahn, in her testimony, told the committee that she had felt threatened by McNamara’s emotional outburst, and said her fear extended to the possibility of violence.

“Loud yelling is often accompanied by physical violence,” Kahn said.

That claim was bolstered by Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, who had overheard the yelling from inside his own office. He testified that the look on Kahn’s face after the incident reminded him of a woman who had suffered domestic violence.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t think this needed attention,” Persell told the committee.

Kelly observed that raised voices are a common occurrence at the Capitol, recalling the frenzied final moments on the House floor this session, and another, similar moment that came earlier in his tenure. Kelly felt the episode Kahn had complained about did not meet the high threshold he held for an ethics investigation.

“I have been on the ethics committee for a number of years now, and nothing has ever… come to this ethics committee, because we have taken it so seriously,” Kelly said. He added: “This turned out to be something more than just the meeting about passionate discussions.”

Shortly before committee members voted, McNamara testified that he was relieved to have rebutted incorrect information about the matter, including the belief that he was still owner of the nursery company or that he had tried to use his legislative authority to garner more lucrative contracts on behalf of his son.

“I hope no one, no one, no one ever has to experience what I did,” McNamara said. “I’m vindicated no matter what happens today, because it’s on the public record that I did nothing wrong.”

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