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No Conflict for Ventura
By Laura McCallum
August 19, 1999

A judge Thursday cleared the way for Governor Ventura to referee a pay-per-view wrestling match this weekend. Two complaints accuse the Governor of violating state conflict of interest laws, alleging Ventura is profiting from his office - some estimates say the event could earn the governor a million dollars in royalties. But Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin refused to stop the governor from participating in the World Wrestling Federation event, and said elected officials don't have to give up their private interests. Minnesota Public Radio's Laura McCallum reports.

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST Leslie Davis asked Judge Gearin to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent Ventura from going back into the ring this weekend. Davis says state law prohibits employees in the executive branch - including the governor - from benefitting financially from their positions. He argued when Ventura is off making money, the state's environmental concerns are getting ignored. But Gearin said Davis failed to provide any evidence he will be harmed because of Ventura's involvement in the WWF event, and she ruled Davis doesn't have standing to pursue the case because he's a private citizen. Davis called it a bad day for Minnesotans.

Davis: So we the public don't have standing! I don't have standing as a citizen of the state of Minnesota to bring an action against the Governor - that's embarrassing and degrading to the people and to the state. HE may think it's amusing but I and my colleagues don't think it's amusing or entertaining.

Ventura's attorney argued the conflict of interest law doesn't apply to the Governor - that the law was designed for civil servants, not elected officials. Judge Gearin didn't rule on whether the Governor is covered by the law, but did say she questions whether he is a state employee subject to the conflict of interest statute. She says the Governor's actions will ultimately be approved or disapproved by voters, and while some may disagree with the Governor's choice of outside interests, in her words, "We live in a free society, people can do so, and we don't have to agree." Ventura's attorney - Alan Eidsness - says the Governor is not above the law - but this one doesn't apply to him.

Eidsness: Obviously there are laws that apply to the governor - he can't commit crimes, he can't speed in his automobile, he can't do these types of things - but I'm not aware of any law in the state that deals with alleged conflicts of interest by any sitting governor. Now there may well be, but it wasn't brought before us in this lawsuit.

Judge Gearin's decision appears to allow Ventura to continue his private business dealings. Davis says he may explore other options, but he's already struck out with the Minnesota Attorney General's office, the state Auditor, and the legislative auditor. The president of Common Cause Minnesota filed a similar complaint with the Department of Employee Relations, which is responsible for resolving conflict of interest questions for state workers. Commissioner Karen Carpenter says her office isn't authorized to issue a legal opinion, and she sent the complaint to the governor's office. Spokesman John Wodele says now that the court has ruled, his office has no reason to respond to Common Cause. If Ventura is given free rein to make money while in office, he's in a situation that would never fly in the nation's capitol, according to a Washington lawyer who specializes in government ethics. Ellen Weintraub, former counsel to the House Ethics Committee, says members of Congress have an outside earning limit of $20,000 a year, and aren't allowed to accept any money for appearing or speaking at an event.

Weintraub: And in fact there are so many limits on professional activities that members of Congress can perform that it actually doesn't come up all that frequently. Most members of Congress don't earn ANY kind of outside earned income because of the vast limits on any kind of professional activities that they're allowed to perform at all.

Weintraub says it would be unfortunate if the Governor of Minnesota isn't subject to conflict of interest laws - she says as the top government official, he's setting an example for the rank and file. But it's still unclear whether Minnesota's law applies to Governor Ventura - the 1981 statute was authored by DFL Senator Allen Spear of Minneapolis, who says he can't remember the intent behind the law. He says he believes it was designed for public employees, not elected officials.