St. Paul, Minn. — House Speaker Steve Sviggum says he's resisted many requests to investigate the conduct of Attorney General Hatch. But he says recent stories that Hatch may have offered favorable treatment to Qwest Communications in return for campaign contributions finally tipped the scale.
"Relationships that are too cozy, with contributions that are too great, and with timing of decisions that are just too questionable, that just warrant the legislative oversight committee to look into those actions," Sviggum said.
Sviggum has created a special oversight committee that will include seven Republicans and three Democrats. And he acknowledges the body is intentionally top-heavy with Republican lawmakers in order to support subpeona power without DFL consent. But Sviggum is promising a non-partisan, dispassionate review of the record.
Hatch isn't buying it. The attorney general vigorously denies the key points of the Qwest story. While he opposed the $26 million fine favored by state regulators, Hatch says he supported a solution that would have cost Qwest more and benefited consumers directly. Hatch's plan would have directed Qwest to provide telemarketer-blocking equipment to all seniors citizens in the state, install high-speed Internet access in rural Minnesota, and compel the company to submit to service standards set by the Public Utilities Commission.
"I think I fulfilled my statutory requirements. I think I represented the consumer. And I represented the people of this state. And I'm very proud of that proposal. I wish it had been accepted. (The) people of Minnesota would be far better off with it. Because right now, we got nothing," he said.
The Communications Workers of America, which represents Qwest workers, contributed $1,100 to his campaign last year. Hatch says it's ridiculous to think such a relatively small contribution would influence his handling of the case.
The investigative panel will also consider Hatch's role in negotiating a settlement with the American Bankers Insurance Company. A previous investigation criticized Hatch for discussing a possible diversion of the settlement funds to a charity. To do so would be illegal.
But Hatch maintains he never seriously intended to divert the proceeds. He said he discussed the option simply to put the company on the record about the size of the penalty it was willing to pay. In fact, Hatch has accused Pawlenty and his Commerce Department of substantially reducing the size of the penalty in response to the company's campaign contributions.
In 2002, American Bankers gave a total of $30,000 to national Republican and Democratic committees with the intention that the money filter down to the campaigns of Pawlenty and his DFL rival Roger Moe.
Corporate contributions are illegal in Minnesota, and Hatch says he has an ongoing investigation into the company's giving practices. Hatch says the House committee is intended to impede that investigation and another one into a telecommunications company linked to Pawlenty and already fined in three other states. Hatch says he has no intention of cooperating with the House panel.
"What would be the sense when I know what they're trying to do? We have two major investigations. And they've basically said they want to appoint a committee to interfere with it. Do you think that they're doing anything but interfering with these investigations?" Hatch said.
But Hatch did use the Republican announcement to reveal yet another disagreement between himself and the governor. Pawlenty has asked for an independent counsel to investigate the American Bankers campaign contributions. And a series of sharply worded letters indicates the two offices can't agree on the appropriate method for designating an outside attorney.
Each side accuses the other of a conflict of interest. The governor's office released a written statement calling Hatch's actions "disappointing." Pawlenty says the letters are more than likely protected by attorney-client privileges and should not have been given to reporters.