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St. Paul, Minn. — Late last month, Gov. Pawlenty asked his Labor and Industry commissioner, Jane Volz, to resign after she admitted violating some of the labor laws her office enforces. Then his administration was criticized for hiring the husband of Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke as assistant commissioner of Trade and Economic Development -- at the same time Pawlenty is proposing a hiring freeze.
Now, Pawlenty's Commerce commissioner, Glenn Wilson, is accused of giving a break to a Florida insurance company for channeling money to Republican campaigns. Wilson denies the charge. Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger, DFL-St. Peter, says the missteps could damage the administration.
"It's like the little pinholes in the shuttle, you know, each one starts causing some cumulative damage," Hottinger says. "The fact that we've had three or four of these things, ranging from Charlie Weaver's car to much more serious allegations against Commissioner Wilson, start having an effect."
Pawlenty's chief of staff, Charlie Weaver, was criticized for leasing a Toyota Highlander sport utility vehicle instead of a less expensive car. Weaver has since decided not to lease the SUV. Weaver says he thinks Pawlenty is doing a good job of handling the early "speed bumps" that every administration has.
"His instinct -- and he proved it along the campaign as well -- is, don't hide, don't make excuses, don't try to pass the buck. His instinct is to accept responsibility, move on," says Weaver.
Weaver also witnessed the early days of Pawenty's predecessor, Gov. Jesse Ventura. Weaver was Ventura's first Cabinet pick. Weaver says it's not surprising that governors have missteps in the beginning, when they must build an entire Cabinet and propose a budget in the first couple of months.
His instinct ... is, don't hide, don't make excuses, don't try to pass the buck. His instinct is to accept responsibility, move on.
In Ventura's case, his DNR commissioner resigned over fishing violations, and the Senate refused to confirm his Commerce commissioner, Steve Minn. Ventura's communications director, John Wodele, says the difference between Ventura and Pawlenty is that Ventura never faced campaign contribution questions.
"You never really had to worry about any allegations of collusion or quid-pro-quos, because Governor Ventura just never took any campaign money. He never had any fundraisers -- he just didn't have that problem," Wodele says.
During the campaign, Pawlenty was fined after a Campaign Finance Board finding of illegal collusion with the state Republican Party on television ads. He didn't fight the ruling and said he accepted full responsibility.
University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs says he gives Pawlenty fairly high marks for the beginning of his term. But he says the issue of the Florida insurance company's campaign contributions could be problematic.
"When you get to these kind of big questions about finance, and particularly campaign contributions, you tend also to run into efforts to camouflage or cover up any mistakes that happened," says Jacobs. "So there is potentially a real slippery slope here that the administration could be entering into. So far, we haven't seen that kind of evidence brought forward, and I would say it remains kind of an open question as to whether it becomes a real issue or not."
Attorney General Mike Hatch says the Florida company, American Bankers Insurance, gave money to the Republican Party to encourage a reduction in a multi-million dollar fine. Hatch says Commerce Commissioner Wilson was aware of the donation before settling with the firm. Pawlenty has called for an impartial investigation. Chief of staff Weaver says Pawlenty wants to clear Wilson's name.
"We're very confident that an independent, respected third party will give us a fair hearing," says Weaver. "But I don't think anyone should think that the governor supported and asked for this review by the legislative auditor because he thinks Mr. Wilson did something wrong at all. It's the opposite."
Weaver says Pawlenty also did nothing wrong in hiring the husband of Education Commissioner Cheri Yecke. He says Dennis Yecke is highly qualified, and the administration was lucky to get him. Weaver says Pawlenty will be the first to admit if he's done something wrong -- but he also won't play defense if he hasn't.