Wednesday, February 09, 2011

"Who's Kidding Who?"

Excellent question, Mr. Knaak.

Wednesday evening, the Senate Ethics subcommittee heard a complaint about the conduct of Sen. Scott Newman (R - Hutchinson.) Kim Kelley, Sen. Newman's legislative assistant, sent an email to a constituent that declared:
Unfortunately, Senator Newman will not see any organizations that donated to/supported his opponent Hal Kimball. After some careful checking, I discovered that [Minnesota Nurses Association] had donated to Kimball's campaign. Your association will be unable to schedule an appointment with Senator Newman.
Everybody in the room deplored this email. They regarded it as "uncomfortable," an act that would exact a "political price" of Sen. Newman, who has "already paid the price." Newman, for his part, seemed contrite. So much so his lawyer, Fritz Knaak, stated that he was "surprised he's not blue in the face" from apologizing. In the end, the committee regarded his testimony that he had no knowledge of the email or policy against meeting with political opponents as "truthful and credible" and decided that there was no probable cause that he had violated Senate rules.

So that's that! And no harm done!

But on the path to that verdict, Newman (and former Coleman) lawyer Knaak held forth on the nature of the Minnesota Legislature. And boy, it's not a pretty picture. It's a world where everybody knows that access to legislators is for sale, and we should stop kidding ourselves. In his view, there's simply no rule that prohibits lawmakers from refusing to meet with political opponents. As Knaak put it, "while what happened is unfortunate, it is not a violation of the Senate rules." "If you look at past practice, and you look at history, something that is suggested in that particular email certainly was the case once upon at time if it isn't anymore."

Or, as he succinctly put it; "who's kidding who?"

Here's his closing argument to the committee:

Senators represent all the people of their district, not just those who supported their election campaign. That belief may be naive, but it is a cornerstone of our democracy. Senator Newman's declaration that he had no policy against meeting with opponents was welcome, and ultimately was the fact that cleared him in the mind of the committee.

Knaak suggested that if the committee doesn't like the kind of conduct implied by this email, the Senate should create rules that clarify what the "accepted norms of the Senate" are. I agree. It should start by clarifying that it is a violation of ethics rules to refuse to meet with constituents who supported your opponent.

Knaak believes that there would not be a consensus among the 67 Senators that a pay-to-play policy is unethical. I think he's wrong. The Senators who brought the complaint against Newman should find out by proposing that the ethics rules be clarified to specifically prohibit legislators from adopting a pay-for-play policy.

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