Conflict of Interest Concerns Dog DFL Senator Hired by Duluth College

No, it’s not a misprint. It’s the same guy, DFL Sen. Erik Simonson, who raised conflict of interest questions and concerns in some quarters in his last public sector job in his home base of Duluth.

The state senator’s latest notch on his remarkable reinvention, from retired fireman to CEO of the Duluth Public Zoo to a top level administrator in higher education now at Lake Superior College, drew criticism in the Star Tribune.

As the legislative session got underway in mid-February, Sen. Erik Simonson introduced a bill to secure nearly $1 million in state infrastructure bonds for a major expansion at Lake Superior College.

On Wednesday, the Duluth Democrat started a new $100,053-a-year job as executive director of continuing education and customized training at the college, the same institution he was seeking to fund. While he’d applied months earlier, the transition, he said, was “accelerated” when cuts prompted by the coronavirus pandemic threatened his previous job as CEO of the Lake Superior Zoo.

Taking a six-figure job with tens of thousands of Minnesotans out of work due to the statewide cornonavirus shutdown is one thing. But government watchdogs expressed more concern over public perception problems given Simonson’s support this legislative session for a big bonding request on the table for his new employer.

The timing has sparked questions from some experts on government ethics. David Schultz, former president of Common Cause Minnesota, said the circumstances under which the lawmaker carried legislation to benefit a prospective employer “fits a classic definition” of a conflict of interest.

“It’s the absolute, core, core bedrock notion of what a conflict of interest is about,” said Schultz, a professor at Hamline University. “Either it’s a real conflict of interest that he did it or it raises such enormous appearances of impropriety that it’s a problem.”

Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, said she too is bothered by the timeline in which Simonson introduced the funding bill after he had applied for the job.

The lawmaker shrugged off the criticism, citing his longtime legislative support for the school.

Simonson disputes any suggestion of a conflict of interest. He said he had carried bills on behalf of the college before because it is in his legislative district. The idea that the bonding proposal might be problematic because he was applying for a job at the school “didn’t cross my mind.”

He said he had concurrently applied for several jobs, including an opening at the Public Utilities Commission, in anticipation of his work with the zoo ending this summer or fall.

“To be honest, I think every individual legislator that has to work outside the Legislature has to deal with this at some point. We are all pretty careful about not benefiting ourselves, so a lot of this is outside perception,” he said.

Simonson and the college say they discussed potential conflicts in his legislative role and had already agreed he would recuse himself from the bonding bill if/when he took the job. He clearly knows the drill by now.

The hiring wasn’t the first time Simonson’s legislative and professional work collided at the Capitol. In 2017, months before taking a job with the Lake Superior Zoo, he introduced legislation to secure $1.9 million in state bonds to build an amphitheater at the institution.

Simonson said in an interview Friday that he has always sought to follow guidance from nonpartisan Senate counsel. “The advice I always got from internal counsel was as long as it doesn’t directly benefit you, it isn’t a direct conflict,” he said.

As for the CEO job Simonson abruptly vacated? They’re in no rush to fill the lawmaker’s shoes, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

“The zoo is not actively looking for a replacement during this uncertain time,” [director of business operations Lynn] Habhegger said.