Sunday, August 21, 2011

State Campaign Finance Board rules Stillwater 'legislative consultant' is not a lobbyist

Michele Bachmann and Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki
Lawyer for 'consultant' admits contract is 'poorly drafted' and 'misrepresents' scope of work

By Karl Bremer

The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board (CFB) on August 16 dismissed my complaint regarding whether Mike Campbell, the “legislative consultant” hired by the City of Stillwater for $1,500 a month who claims he isn’t a lobbyist, should have registered as a lobbyist based on his duties as outlined in a contract with the City.
The CFB’s investigation appears to have consisted of simply asking Campbell's lawyer and Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki whether Campbell lobbied.

The CFB noted that Campbell’s activities on behalf of the City of Stillwater met two of the three criteria for lobbying—that he provided services to the City of Stillwater for the purpose of influencing official legislative or administrative action and that he has been paid more than $3,000 in a calendar year for his services. However, based on responses from Campbell’s lawyer, Ryan Kaess, and Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki, the CFB determined that Campbell did not meet the third criteria of communicating “directly with public or local officials to influence their actions or … with other individuals to urge them to contact public or local officials on behalf of the City of Stillwater.”

“In response to a question on whether Mr. Campbell communicated directly with public and local officials on behalf of the City of Stillwater,” the CFB reported, “Mayor Harycki responded, “I received daily updates as to the status of our legislation but to my knowledge, he did not communicate directly with any groups listed. That is to say at no time did he ever have a conversation by saying “I talked to Senator X and he/she informed me…’
“Mayor Harycki was asked if under the duties of the contract Mr. Campbell communicated with individuals and urged them to communicate with public officials on behalf of the City of Stillwater. In response Mayor Harycki stated, ‘Mr. Campbell did not appear before any groups or issue any communication urging individuals to call. He simply provided me with updates on the status or legislation we were following.’”

Mayor Harycki also was asked about a quote in a media story in which the Mayor attributed in part the success of obtaining funding for the Browne Creek bonding bill to the services provided by Campbell. According to the CFB’s findings, Mayor Harycki states, “I am pleased the Browne Creek bonding was done. In a conversation subsequent to the newspaper story and preceding your letter, Mr. Campbell informed me that the budget settlement was a late night deal that he had no connection to. Throughout the legislative session he did inform me that he was tracking the bill and that we were fine.”

In other words, the Mayor attributed part of the success to the Brown’s Creek funding to Campbell even though he “had no connection to it” and only tracked the bill through the session.

According to the CFB’s findings, Kaess explained that Campbell “provided strategic advice, research and messaging related to legislative initiatives of the City of Stillwater. He did not attempt to influence legislative or administrative action, communicate with public officials or urge others to communicate with public or local officials as defined by Minnesota Statute. At no time did my client ever have contact with any public official for the purpose of advocating a position on behalf of the City of Stillwater.” The CFB’s report notes that “Mr. Kaess acknowledges that Mr. Campbell contacted one legislative staffer and requested research information, but states that Mr. Campbell did not urge the staff member to advocate on behalf of any legislative position.”
Campbell, who reportedly has been a political advisor to the mayor in the past and was hired without advertising or competitive bids, is the sole owner and principal consultant for the Conach Group, Kaess told the CFB.

My complaint to the CFB was based on the fact that the contract between the Conach Group and the City of Stillwater stated that the Conach Group is “To secure the required support of the Federal Government State of Minnesota and any administrative Department of either entity for the approval and funding of the pending St. Croix River Crossing at Stillwater” and “To secure Minnesota Legislative funding for the State purchase of the MN Zephyr Railroad Right of Way as an extension of the State Trail system, support for the New Armory Project and Phase III of the Levy Wall Project." According to the contract, “Consultant services will be rendered largely at the Consultant office and the State of Minnesota Capitol.”

The CFB’s Lobbyist Handbook states that, “You must register as a lobbyist within five days after you … are engaged for pay or other consideration and receive more than $3,000 from all sources in any year, for the purpose of attempting to influence legislative or administrative action or the official action of a metropolitan governmental unit by communicating or urging others to communicate with public officials or local officials in a metropolitan governmental unit.”

However, Campbell is not registered as a lobbyist with the CFB.

But the CFB bought Kaess’s explanation regarding the apparent discrepancy between what the contract states and what Kaess and Harycki claimed Campbell’s duties were.

“Regarding the terms of the contract, Mr. Kaess states, ‘I will concede that the contract is poorly drafted and significantly misrepresents the scope of what The Conach Group did and is doing for the City of Stillwater. However, it is clear, based upon the statements made by the parties that The Conach Group was not retained to lobby for the City of Stillwater, and no one from The Conach Group actually lobbied for the City of Stillwater.”

Concluded the CFB:

“What may be confusing to the general public is that tracking legislation, providing research, and providing advice on actions that a client might take to further a legislative or administrative agenda are all actions that support lobbying efforts. But without direct communication with public or local officials, or communication in which the public is urged to contact public officials on an issue, the definition of lobbying is not met, and registration and disclosure under Chapter 10A is not required.”

Harycki dismissed my complaint as “much ado about nothing.” But Stillwater’s troubles involving its lobbying activities with tax dollars may not be over.

The State Auditor is currently looking into the legality of Campbell’s hiring, as well as the city’s donation of $80,000 in Stillwater Tax Increment Financing funds to the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, another lobbying group supporting the construction of the “Bachmann Boondoggle” freeway bridge across the St. Croix.


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