During the final minutes of the 2021 session, the Minnesota legislature hastily passed a new law prohibiting legislators from getting paid to lobby while serving in office. There is concern that one or more of their colleagues is using the influence and power of public office to receive a personal financial benefit. That’s commonly referred to as a conflict of interest.
What would legislators (and the public) think about a colleague who owns a transportation engineering firm that received over $7.6 million in state contracts the last five years advocating and voting for the $6.4 billion Transportation Omnibus Spending Bill last week?
That’s the case with Sen. Ann Johnson Stewart (DFL-Wayzata) and the company she owns called Professional Engineering Services, LLC. According to data from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, PES has 17 current contracts with MNDOT worth over $7 million. In the last five years, Johnson Stewart’s company received $7.6 million in transportation related engineering contracts from the state.
Sen. Johnson lists PES on her annual Statement of Economic Interest filed with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, which requires public officials to disclose the source of any income over $50. The only other source of income listed on her statement is the University of Minnesota, where she is an adjunct faculty member.
Johnson Stewart’s advocacy for transportation should not surprise her constituents because during the 2020 campaign she called herself a “passionate transit advocate” and promised to “steer funding to address our traffic problems.”
Looks like some of that $6.4 billion in transportation funding will be “steered” into her own pocket.
According to her campaign website, Ann Johnson Stewart’s engineering company “worked on the design and construction of the three Minnesota light rail lines to date, as well as on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and other transit facilities.” She bragged during the campaign: “I’m proud to say that I’ve grown this company myself from just me to now 27 employees. We provide construction inspection and materials testing mostly for the state.”
According to a data practices request made by Center of the American Experiment, PES worked on 21 contracts for the Minnesota Department of Transportation over the last five years, totaling $7,631,118.91.
J-35W Pavement Rehabilitation Contract Administration and Inspection
Contract administration and inspection on SP 2782-347 on I-35W
ADA collection – assets/inventory
ADA Small Business Opportunity Program Inspection Contract (Tier 2)_B
SPCD Maintenance Study
TH 12 Construction Inspection
OAE FY21 Asset Inventory
Construction Design-Build Verification/Oversight
US Highway 52 Zumbrota to Cannon Falls Design-Build Verification
35W Pavement Rehab Contract Admin and Inspection
Design-Build Verification Consultant (DBVC)
Professional Services – District 7 Resident Offices
Highway 14 Expansion Design-Build Verification
I-94 Maple Grove to Rogers design build verification
COUNTY ROAD SAFETY PLAN UPDATES
Development of the Web-Based Geometric Design Training Video Series
Construction Oversight of US 63 Mississippi River Bridge in the City of Red Wing
Highway 14 Expansion Design-Build Verification – Construction
TH 94 Design Build Verification Team
TPI Work Package #1 Inspection and Contact Administration
I35W NORTH MNPASS DESIGN-BUILD VERIFICATION PROJECT
It’s hard to imagine that PES, which relies on projects “mostly from the state,” will not be bidding on future projects funded by the bill Sen. Johnson Stewart just voted for. And she didn’t just vote for it — she advocated for its passage, saying: “We need more construction, we need more funding, a gas tax. I’m excited that I can lend my expertise.” She closed her comments with, “I too will be voting green on this vote.”
Sen. Johnson Stewart is not the first legislator to face a vote that can potentially benefit her or her family. Every year, the topic of conflict of interest comes up in discussions at the Capitol. Can teachers vote for the education bill? Can farmers vote for the agriculture bill? The test is simple: if you are a member of a class (teachers) and the entire class is impacted the same, you are not in conflict. If you benefit specifically (like the owner of a company with a contract), then you are in conflict.
She could have observed her colleague from Red Wing, Sen. Mike Goggin, when he occasionally declared a conflict and publicly excused himself from voting on matters that benefit his employer, Xcel Energy. State law regarding conflicts of interest is pretty clear:
Subdivision 1.Disclosure of potential conflicts.
(a) A public official or a local official elected to or appointed by a metropolitan governmental unit who in the discharge of official duties would be required to take an action or make a decision that would substantially affect the official’s financial interests or those of an associated business, unless the effect on the official is no greater than on other members of the official’s business classification, profession, or occupation, must take the following actions:
(1) prepare a written statement describing the matter requiring action or decision and the nature of the potential conflict of interest;
(2) deliver copies of the statement to the official’s immediate superior, if any; and
(3) if a member of the legislature or of the governing body of a metropolitan governmental unit, deliver a copy of the statement to the presiding officer of the body of service.
If a potential conflict of interest presents itself and there is insufficient time to comply with clauses (1) to (3), the public or local official must orally inform the superior or the official body of service or committee of the body of the potential conflict.
(b) For purposes of this section, “financial interest” means any ownership or control in an asset that has the potential to produce a monetary return.
In addition to state law, Senators also have their own rule governing conflicts of interest:
Rule 56.4 Members of the Senate shall disclose potential conflicts of interest in the discharge of senatorial duties as provided in Minnesota Statutes, section 10A.07.
Johnson Stewart is in violation of state law and Senate rules both through her failure to publicly disclose her conflict of interest and through her vote for the Transportation spending bill, which clearly and specifically benefits her and her family. Having people in public office with a variety of knowledge and experience serves the public. But only if the public understands the motivation and potential conflicts behind their advocacy and votes.
Sen. Johnson Stewart should immediately come clean about her current sources of income and explain to her constituents in Plymouth, Minnetonka and Woodland how her votes for transportation funding are benefitting her family. Barring an announcement that she sold her company after the election and didn’t tell anyone, the Senate Ethics Committee should immediately investigate this egregious and ongoing conflict of interest.