Minnesota legislators travel….a lot, with no public transparency

Alpha News reported in June about the privately-funded travel habits of Minnesota’s U.S. Congressional delegation.  The information is available to the public thanks to changes made to the congressional travel rules in 2007 as result of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.  Any citizen can find expense reports and travel itineraries, for both elected officials and their staffs, signed off by their member of Congress.  But at the state level, no such public transparency exists, and constituents are left in the dark about who is traveling where, who’s footing the bill, and how the trips benefit their home districts.

For the purposes of this story, privately-funded travel doesn’t refer to family vacations– although certainly a family vacation could be coordinated with some of the trips taken.  Privately-funded travel consists of trips offered to state legislators, because of their role as an elected official.  Some are financed directly through non-profit educational organizations, some expenses can be paid for out of the legislator’s campaign funds, and other trips are financed by the individual out of their own pocket.  But all of it involves state representatives and senators traveling out-of-state and out-of-the-country at a time when many are lamenting that legislators do not make enough money and should be given a pay raise.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, (R-Crown) recently traveled to Turkey for a nine-day trip with Rep. Ron Kresha, (R-Little Falls), and Rep. Paul Rosenthal, D-Edina.  The Star Tribune reported that “spokespeople for the House GOP and DFL said no taxpayer funds are being spent on the trip.”  But the reporter could not reach the non-profit Niagara Foundation which financed the trip and a perusal of the IRS 990 forms for the foundation finds no donors listed.  The Star Tribune followed up with a story the following week with some detail about the founder of the organization, a former Muslim imam “known for a progressive approach to Islam.” As the Star Tribune reported, Niagara is a part of the secretive Islamic Gulenist movement and the public is left to wonder who’s funding travel for the House Speaker in Minnesota and why.

Certainly the Niagara Foundation’s goals stand in stark contrast to Speaker Daudt’s recent letter to Governor Dayton asking for a pause on the resettlement of Syrian refugees.  The Niagara Foundation held an event in conjunction with the United Nations in June where speakers condemned the lack of U.S. leadership in resettling Syrian refugees and advocated for U.S. resettlement opportunities.   USA Today reported November 23rd, that Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Gulenist movement and that Republicans who had received large donations from the same network, have returned donations, but this didn’t stop Speaker Daudt and the other legislators and staff from taking the trip to Turkey that has no known benefit to Minnesota taxpayers.

The quote provided to the Star Tribune from Rep. Kresha, shed some other light on the impetus for the trip:  free leisure travel.  “Understanding the earliest days of western civilization is a passion I possess,” Kresha wrote. “Seeing the caves of Cappadocia where early Christians hid, the ruins of Ephesus where St. Paul preached, and the Palace of the Ottoman Empire furthered my historical perspective.”

Unlike the Turkey trip, which was funded by a non-profit, the recent trip to Communist Cuba made by a large delegation of Minnesota legislators and staff was reportedly paid for out of their pockets.  Rep. Frank Hornstein, (D-Minneapolis,) told KARE 11 that “We are very interested in establishing stronger ties between our state and the Cuban people. We are very, very interested in establishing that relationship and building on it as the country transitions into the future.”  Hornstein is a liberal legislator and organized the trip through the Augsburg College Center for Cultural Education and Experience. According to the Center’s website:  “Our programs are inspired by Paulo Freire’s philosophy of popular education, as well as other critical, experiential, feminist, indigenous, and postcolonial pedagogies that foment transformation.” Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” was an influential book devoted to anti-capitalism.

Rep. Mary Franson (R-Alexandria,) also made the trip and was open about the travel sharing tweets and interviewing with her local paper afterward. The Star Tribune reported that Reps. Tina Liebling, (D-Rochester,) Mark Uglem-(R, Champlin,) and Sen. Scott Dibble, (D-Minneapolis,) were the other three members of the legislature who went to Cuba.

A spokesperson for Augsburg shared the itinerary for the 7-day trip which included; a visit to the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, a guided tour of an organic urban cooperative farm, a presentation from the Institute of Tourism about the impact of increased travel to the island, a briefing by Jeffrey DeLaurentes, Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy, and meetings and discussion with a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A side-trip to a tobacco-cigar factory was also made by part of the group, which Franson described to the Alexandria Echo Press as “a sweatshop, with workers operating elbow-to-elbow with only a small fan blowing in the heat.”  Franson also took the time to deliver items to needy children.  She shared with her local paper that she took a part-time waitressing job to finance the travel.

Sen. Dave Senejem went to Berlin last summer, with expenses– other than airfare– paid for by the German government. Rep. Melissa Hortman, (D-Brooklyn Park,) also made the trip according to the Star Tribune, whose columnist, Lori Sturdevant, advocated for the international travel program conceived by a Planned Parenthood lobbyist which brings corporate and political interests together.  Watchdog.org reported that Rep. Joe Atkins, (D-Inver Grove Heights,) also went, and used his campaign funds to pay for his $1,642 airfare.  Senjem told the Star Tribune that the event was educational and the meetings had “been extremely important in lifting horizons for legislators.”

Does the public have a right to know where their elected officials and taxpayer-paid staff are traveling, when the travel is related to their role as legislators?  Reporters around the country are starting to ask the question.

11 Alive News in Georgia recently conducted a shocking investigative report on a recent conference held by the American Legislative Exchange Council, (ALEC), this June with a powerful video showing corporate lobbyists sitting at a bar with a state legislator from New England.  One of the lobbyists states, “We pay more to be here, so it helps support them.”  Off-duty police officers were outside the meeting and kicked the journalist out, who was seeking to find out which Georgia state legislators were in attendance, because, like Minnesota, the information isn’t made public.

ALEC recently held a 3-day conference in Scottsdale, AZ with “hundreds of state legislators”– whether Minnesota was represented is unknown because no public filings are required.

Foundation for Excellence in Education was launched by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.  MinnPost reported back in 2010 that a group of legislators, representatives from the Minnesota Business Partnership, and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce traveled together for Washington D.C. for one of their conferences.   The New York Times reported that 30 Minnesota lawmakers attended that year quoting Rep. Pat Garafalo, (R-Farmington), then chair of the House education finance committee.  Legislators, according to press releases, have traveled on “scholarships” to the event and can be reimbursed for the full cost of the event.  This year’s even featured a keynote by Condoleeza Rice, but it’s unknown whether any Minnesota legislators attended.

DFL’ers of course take these trips too.  State Senate President Sandy Pappas, is the Vice President of the Women Legislators’ Lobby, (WiLL), an anti-nuclear weapons and peace organization who also has a list of big corporate, lobbying, and labor union sponsors.   Sen. Pappas, Sen. Susan Kent, (D-Woodbury,) Rep. Rena Moran, (D-St. Paul,) Rep. JoAnn Ward, (D-Woodbury), Rep. Kim Norton, (D-Rochester,) Rep. Carolyn Laine, (D-Columbia Heights,) Rep Phyllis Kahn, (D-Minneapolis,) Rep. Connie Bernardy, (D-Fridley,) attended a 3-day conference in D.C. in October with the Women’s Action for New Directions, which is a part of WiLL. The organization works: “To empower women to act politically to reduce violence and militarism and redirect excessive Pentagon spending toward unmet human and environmental needs.” Sen. Pappas spoke to the Washington Area State Relations Group according to the FCC’s lobby comply blog, apparently in conjunction with the WiLL trip.

Women Legislators Lobby trip

Sen. Pappas and Sen Ann Rest, (D-New Hope) traveled to Taiwan courtesy of the Taiwanese government in 2014, and the only way a reporter at Watchdog.org was tipped off on the trip was via a Facebook Post. Watchdog.org also found travel via social media for Sen. Dan Hall, (R-Burnsville) who boasted of “body surfing in the Mediterranean Sea” in 2014 in a privately-funded trip to Israel, where a lobbyist from Lockridge Grindal Nauen was also traveling with the group.

In addition to Speaker Daudt’s Turkey trip, he traveled to Milan, Italy in September to check out the World’s Fair.  The trip was sponsored by the Minnesota World’s Fair Bid Committee which is funded by labor union and corporate sponsors per their website.  He traveled with a delegation of 19, including staff for Congressmen Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer, as well as former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who has been pushing for the World’s Fair in Minnesota. When and if the state legislature or the U.S. Congress is asked to consider funding security or other costs for the event, will the trip to Milan be a deciding factor?

House minority leader, Rep. Paul Thissen, (D-Minneapolis) also traveled Europe as a part of the World’s Fair bid team, and then visited India in the fall to “build stronger government relations” with the country.  His spokesperson said none of the trips were privately financed and that the India trip with sponsored by the U.S. State Department in coordination with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

One of the most well-traveled women in St. Paul is conservative Rep. Cindy Pugh who’s been racking up the frequent flyer miles in 2015.  Pugh traveled in late September to Buffalo, New York for the Great Lakes Legislative caucus, then to Charleston, South Carolina in early October for the Advanced Technology and Innovations Summit for Women in Government.  She traveled to Dallas, Texas in early November for the 2015 Wallbuilders ProFamily Legislators conference, along with Rep. Abigail Whelan.  From November 19-21, Rep. Pugh was with Reps. Norton and Kahn at the Women in Government annual Healthcare summit in Washington D.C. where a lobbyist from PhRMA was a featured speaker per the organization’s Facebook page.  Rep. Pugh did not respond to our request for comment on this story.

Reps. Norton, Kahn, and Pugh at a Women in Government conference
Reps. Norton, Kahn, and Pugh at a Women in Government conference

Women in Government’s conference last year was hosted in St. Louis, Missouri and included Reps. Kim Norton, D-, Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, and Sen. Carrie Rudd, R-Breezy Point.  Women in Government is sponsored by a variety of corporations, but mostly large pharmeceutical companies who provide full “scholarships” for the legislators to travel to their conventions. So while the lobbyists face tight restrictions on buying lunches back home, they’re able to fund trips with no oversight.

Minnesota is a state that prides itself on open-government, yet there are no campaign finance laws that require legislators to document their travels.  Spokespersons for Rep. Paul Thissen and Sen. David Hann’s office both replied to request for comment on this story and stated that both leaders wouldn’t be opposed to more disclosure requirements for legislative travel.  Speaker Kurt Daudt’s office did not reply to our request for comment.

Minnesota ranks 4th in the country for the amount of money spent lobbying the legislature, according to the Washington Post.  There are tight rules in place to ban gifts from lobbyists, but the travel loophole remains and despite the disclosure requirements at the federal level, abuses still exist.  The Washington Post reported last May about a state-owned oil company in Azerbaijan funneled $750,000 through various U.S.-based non-profits to pay for a luxury trip for 10 members of Congress and 32 staff members.  The National Journal wrote a story last year that found lobbyists still flying Congressmen and women all over the world, according to their report: “Today, a wide net­work of non­profits — many with a clear agenda and some with ex­cru­ci­at­ingly tight ties to Wash­ing­ton’s biggest lob­by­ing op­er­a­tions — are put­ting to­geth­er in­ter­na­tion­al con­gres­sion­al ex­cur­sions.”

But at least the public has access to the records of these trips via the Congressional Clerk’s office and can hold their representative accountable as they sign off on the travel for both themselves and their staff members. At the state level, no such step is required, and unless a local news outlet happens to hear of the travel, or a new law is introduced to require disclosure, constituents will likely never know about all the trips taken by their local legislator.




Contributor Alpha News