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The Story of Dallas Sams
By Laura McCallum
February 16, 1999

Click for audio RealAudio 3.0 28.8
A new report on conflict-of-interest laws for public officials ranks Minnesota in the bottom third among states. The Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based nonpartisan watchdog, found a number of weaknesses in Minnesota's laws requiring state legislators to disclose their financial interests. The report comes in the wake of an ethics finding that Senator Dallas Sams improperly concealed a consulting payment from the University of Minnesota.

A MINNESOTA STATE LEGISLATOR IS REQUIRED to disclose any source of income over $50, and any securities valued at more than $2,500. But lawmakers don't have to disclose how much they earned. They don't have to list their clients. They don't have to report employment income for their spouses or other family members. Because of that, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) ranked Minnesota 35th in the nation for its disclosure laws.

"Minnesota has quite a few loopholes that allow lawmakers to conceal information on their private-business activities or interests," says CPI's Director of State Projects, Diane Renzulli. She says lawmakers also don't have to report independent contracts, which is how Senator Dallas Sams skirted the law. The Staples DFLer received $12,500 for his work with the University of Minnesota's Agricultural Education program. Sams, an educator and farmer who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, sponsored legislation funding the program. Sams' payment was funneled through a third-party arrangement, which was only made public after two university staffers raised questions about the deal.

Shelley Diment, Associate to the Dean of the College of Agriculture, taped a phone converation with Sams, which a Senate ethics panel considered as evidence in the case, in which Sams seems concerned about keeping the matter quiet, and Diment questions whether the university could pay Sams directly.

Diment:Would you be willing for us to change the paperwork? Or do you think it's just too late to do that?

Sams: Well, I think if it's to this point, I should just give it back and say "that's it" and forget it. I mean, you know, I don't know if we can retrace or retrack and get out of this thing or what, at this point. It's certainly not worth it to me to risk anything.
Click for audio Hear the conversation

The Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct ruled that Sams' work for the university was not a conflict-of-interest, because there was no evidence that Sams sponsored agricultural-education funding hoping to get a kickback. The panel did find his effort to hide the payment was unethical, and ordered him to apologize. CPI's Diane Renzulli says what appears to be a slap on the wrist bolsters the argument for tougher laws.

"I mean, what we have here is an elected official who hides payments from a university program he helped fund as a lawmaker, and his reprimand is that he gets to stay on as chair of the committee where it all started? This doesn't seem to send out a message to lawmakers that they'll suffer dire consequences if they don't keep their private-business dealings out of their public duties." says Renzulli.

The ethics panel also removed him from the Human Resources Finance Committee. The chair of the Ethical Conduct Subcommittee, DFL Senator Ember Reichgott Junge, defends the panel's recommendations, "I know that some members of the Senate felt we went way too far in our recommendations for discipline. Others felt we didn't go far enough, so I believe we found that middle that really did fit with the facts of that case.".

One Senator arguing for harsher punishment was Republican Linda Runbeck of Circle Pines. Runbeck says, considering the millions of dollars that pass through the Capitol, the public deserves to know if lawmakers have a personal stake in funding decisions.

"I have to believe there is a black-and-white line. And certainly when it comes to legislation that affects an industry that you are involved in, yes, you should be there and give good advice, and policy decisions should include you. But where you would stand to have some pecuniary interest in the outcome or in the execution of that law, it's very clear to me that you would stay away from that, " says Runbeck.

Runbeck says the Senate is a small body whose members have strong ties to one another, and many of the senators siding with Dallas Sams were rural legislators who had worked closely with him. She thinks an outside, neutral party may be able to monitor ethics issues better than lawmakers. But Runbeck says there doesn't appear to be much support for strengthening Minnesota's disclosure laws. DFL Senator John Marty has introduced legislation requiring lawmakers to disclose all consulting fees and independent contracts. He says the case of Senator Sams clearly pointed out the need for such a change. Marty added, "aside from whether there's any conflict of interest or not, I don't think you can make a credible case that the public shouldn't have a right to know about that.".

Senator Ember Reichgott Junge says she thinks the Senate needs better guidelines on conflict-of-interest, but isn't convinced tougher laws are the answer. She says, "You can't have blanket prohibitions. That doesn't work either, because that raises more questions and raises more concerns, and we don't want to make it too hard for people to serve in the legislature. We don't want to make it too hard for someone who is a business executive to come and spend their time over here and work; we need their experience".

Junge says with a part-time legislature, there are bound to be times a lawmaker's outside job conflicts with legislative business. She says Senate DFL leaders are advising members, when in doubt, disclose potential conflicts, and refrain from voting on those issues. As for Dallas Sams: although he didn't disclose his consulting fee last year, he says he'll report it on the form due in April.

Laura McCallum covers the Minnesota Legislature for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach her at

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