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Ventura's Conflict of Interest
By Laura McCallum
August 18, 1999
Update: Case dismissed
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The watchdog group Common Cause Minnesota has filed a complaint against Governor Jesse Ventura, alleging the Governor violated state conflict of interest laws by agreeing to guest referee a pay-per-view wrestling match. The law prohibits state employees from profiting from their positions. Some estimates say Ventura could make a million dollars in fees and royalties from the World Wrestling Federation event this weekend, which is raising eyebrows among many political leaders. Minnesota Public Radio's Laura McCallum reports.

COMMON CAUSE asked the Minnesota Department of Employee Relations to look into whether Ventura's referee job violates the conflict of interest statute, which says an employee of the executive branch can't use his or her position to secure a benefit different from those available to the general public. Common Cause president David Schultz says although Ventura was a professional wrestler before he was elected, he used his office to get the referee spot.

Schultz: If he were doing this as simply a wrestling persona, not as Governor, then why did he promote himself in an event last week where he and others at the WWF event talked about him being Governor, him bringing order to Minnesota and therefore he's a suitable candidate, or a good candidate to bring order in a wrestling ring? By his own admission, he's blurring the two roles.

Ventura WWF promo: Summerslam takes place August 22 at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Well, we all know who is the power in Minnesota! And we all know - why did the World Wrestling Federation come to Jesse the Body Ventura for a match of this magnitude? A world heavyweight championship match? Because they know I am the only person who can deliver law and order.

When Ventura appeared on the USA Network to promote this weekend's match - wearing his usual gubernatorial garb, a double-breasted suit - he was NOT referred to as Governor, and he stressed his background in pro wrestling and as a Navy SEAL. He did talk about having his picture on the front page of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times with President Clinton, a photo that was taken at the National Governors' Association meeting. Ventura wouldn't comment on the Common Cause complaint, but his spokesman, John Wodele, dismissed the charge that Ventura was exploiting his office.

Wodele: He can't wear a suit? I mean, this is the most ridiculous, nonsensical CRAP I have ever heard in my life! If he wears a suit, he draws attention to his office?

Wodele says the conflict of interest law applies only to nonpolitical state employees - not the Governor.

Wodele: This law is a bunch of gobbledegook that goes nowhere in terms of being specific as to whom it applies. This law does NOT apply to the Governor. The Governor answers to the people of the state of Minnesota. He is an elected official.

Carlson: He IS a part of the executive branch, he's the leader of the branch, and therefore this law MUST be obeyed.

Ventura's predecessor - former Governor Arne Carlson - scoffs at the notion that the Governor is not a state employee subject to the conflict of interest laws.

Carlson: Of course you're a state employee! You get a paycheck every two weeks, I think! Of course - I mean, you're eligible for the benefit package, the health care, retirement - of course you're a state employee.

Carlson says when he was Governor, he took a conservative view of the conflict of interest laws. When he had a bit part in a television show and participated in a book about his administration, the proceeds went to charity. Ventura has said he'll donate the $100,000 fee from the WWF event to charity, but he could make much more from royalties. Carlson says if Ventura wants to comply with the law, he can't make money from his position, and must show that he could have gotten the same deal BEFORE he was Governor...

Carlson: What Governor Ventura would have to do in this particular case is to say that this particular opportunity - be it the book or whatever else it may be, the wrestling match - would have come about naturally. In order to prove that, he would have to come in and say, yes, three years ago, I was given this offer and this opportunity, five years ago, I was given this offer and opportunity, et cetera.

Ventura's spokesman, John Wodele, says the Governor COULD have gotten book deals and wrestling match referee jobs before he was elected.

Wodele: He is one of the most famous wrestlers in the world. The reason that he is well known internationally is because of his wrestling - that is the basis of it. It's not the fact that he was elected Governor.

Wodele says Minnesota's political establishment simply doesn't want to accept that Jesse Ventura is a different kind of Governor - an entrepreneur who won't give up outside jobs while serving in office. He says the public will decide if Ventura's business activities are inappropriate - and with the Governor's approval ratings approaching 70 percent in recent polls, many politicians admit privately they're not eager to pick a fight over the conflict of interest laws. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says he's heard from citizens on both sides of the issue - those who think the Governor should continue his moneymaking ventures, which have brought the state enormous publicity, and those who are appalled that Ventura might make millions during his term. Sviggum says whether or not it's illegal, he thinks it's unethical for the Governor to profit financially while in office. He says lawmakers may take up the issue next session.

Sviggum: Certainly the legislature potentially with this being right now before us might look at clarifying the conflict of interest statutes. You know, the ethics things are HARD to clarify because they're somewhat subjective, they're not always objective, you know.

Legal experts say while attorneys may argue over how to interpret any law, the conflict of interest law is fairly clear, and state agencies usually define it broadly - if an employee's outside interests are at all in question, the agency will ask the employee to stop the activity. Minneapolis labor attorney Greg Corwin - who represents more than 30,000 state employees - says if Governor Ventura were a typical state employee, he would not be allowed to continue his business activities. But says elected officials don't seem to play by the same rules as other state employees.

Corwin: Basically, when you elect someone, they have free rein! And that's the thing I think that concerns me the most is up til now, that free rein that we give someone in that position has been responsibly executed. You know, the question is where you draw the line, and this is about as far out as things have gone with a chief executive as far as outside activities are concerned. And I think that's what raises the question in all our minds - we give these people almost unbridled authority and power, and hope and pray and expect that they will exercise it responsibly.

Some state employees say privately they think their boss isn't complying with the same rules they're expected to abide by, and they resent it. But it's unclear whether any legal authorities are willing to take up the matter. Environmental activist Leslie Davis asked Attorney General Mike Hatch's office to look into Ventura's wrestling deal, but Hatch refused, saying the office will issue opinions only at the request of certain state and local officials, not citizens. The legislative auditor also refused to consider Davis' request, saying state law doesn't prohibit the Governor from having an outside job or business. Davis is now seeking a restraining order in Ramsey County District Court to prevent Ventura from going into the ring this weekend. But if the courts won't rule on the issue, and if politicians remain leery of battling the Governor, a decision on the matter may rest with a state ethicist, a Department of Employee Relations staffer. She's responsible for resolving conflict of interest questions, but she hasn't ruled yet, and her ultimate boss is Governor Ventura.