Sunday, February 27, 2011

What and Which Conflict of Interest Is It?

After reading Mike Kaszuba's piece in the Star Tribune on the possible conflict of interest on the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council I did several things.  First, I went to the Council website to see if there is information on the members that could help me understand if there is a conflict of interest.

Secondly, I went to the web to help define for me what conflict of interest is.  I read four of them.

Wikipedia-conflict of interest occurs when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act of the other.

Business Ethics-a situation in which a person has a private or personal interest sufficient to appear to influence the objective exercise of his or her official duties as, say, a public official, an employee, or a professional.

Legal Dictionary-a term used to describe the situation in which a public official or fiduciary who, contrary to the obligation, and absolute duty to act for the benefit of the public or a designated individual, exploits the relationship for personal benefit, typically pecuniary.

Business Dictionary-situation that has the potential to undermine the impartiality of a person because of the possibility of a clash between the person's self interest and professional interest or the public interest.

The review of the members background page, generally gave me information on their interests, involvement in organizations, and a personal note on their personal activities or their families.  The legislative members have very limited information.  It linked me to their legislative pages.  What are their interests and involvement in organizations?

When I review the various definitions of conflict of interests, some are understandable, one is in legalese, what it boils down to many people is they know it when they see it.  To quote Potter Stewart, former Justice of the Supreme Court, trying to explain what obscenity is in 1964, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material,---but I know it when I see it,"

Conflict of interest can be hidden, opaque, or upfront, it can be questioned publicly or privately.  In the world of politics, there has been and will always be conflict of interests.  At the Legislature, the City Hall, and throughout government it is there.

When I lobby at the Capitol I know lobbyists represent various interests.  I have talked directly to some of them about their possible conflict of interests on legislation, particularly when I lobby on something they oppose for one client, but I know one of their other clients would be in favor of the legislation I am in support of.  Legislators can also have conflict of interests.

In the case of the Legacy monies and the Outdoor Heritage Council is there conflict of interest?  Pick your definition?

For me, there can be more information about the individual members.  It can be standardized somewhat particularly with their backgrounds as it relates to the Council.  I like the contact information that citizen members have provided.  There is a definition of conflict of interest for the Council.  Is it the right definition?  How can the members outline their potential conflicts of interests and then publicly state them?

It is important to address the possibility of conflict of interest with the Lessard-Sams Council and other aspects of the Legacy Amendment implementation, but there other parts of government that need just as much attention.

Conflict of interest is tough to define.  It is important for organizations to have clear and concise policies as to what a conflict of interest is, there should be public discussion of it, and transparency and accountability of the policies.  If it is not done, there can be false impressions from the public, loss of trust, and lost respectability to the individual or institution.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How the Legislature and Governor Can Engage the People About the Budget

The Governor and the GOP lead Legislature will fight, mix it up, or posture for the hearts and minds of the Minnesota people as to what their best approach is for the $6 billion state deficit.  How the state leaders get out the information is important?  The budget proposals have to be presented in an understandable way so it can be comprehended by the people and then allow them to come to their own conclusions.  Hopefully, then the people will speak with their elected officials.

I have viewed the Governor's budget web site and the Legislature's House and Senate sites. They are not easy for the great majority of people to understand who are are not very familiar with the budget process.  How will the Governor's or the GOP's budget proposals have an an impact on you and me?  Granted for the GOP their overall budget proposals have not been presented yet, but we did get a taste of their proposals through the presentation and passing of  HF 130 which was vetoed by the Governor.

Charts of the tax proposals by the Governor were informative, the overall HF 130 pdf with tax conference report was rich with detail, and the Senate has an interesting publication called, State of Minnesota Budget Basics.

What can the Governor and the Legislature do as a public service to engage Minnesotans in the budget process/debate and to advance a greater recognition about the tough choices we need to make?

I suggest the following:

1.Offer the opportunity for the people to ask questions about their budget proposals and get prompt answers.

2.The Governor and GOP Legislative Leadership engage in several open fourms to discuss their approaches to specific parts of the budget.

3.Negotiations on the budget between the Governor and the Legislature be done in public would be refreshing.

4.Make appropriate websites understandable and easy to use.

There are no easy choices about the budget.  It is paramount the Governor and the Legislature lead.  Whatever the solutions are for the budget it is important they have the support of the public and we can live with them.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Can the Legislature Make the U Come Clean?

The Legislature needs to take leadership and pick up its reins of oversight as to whether or not the U of M violated the Minnesota Open Meeting Law(OML) in the selection of Eric Kaler as the new President.  No other party or institution other than the Legislature in an open forum can get to the bottom of what happened.  The accusations of secret meetings, manipulation of the OML to do the public business which should be in public, but is done in private, and other public statements by open government advocates to students about the process has created a cloud over the selection of Eric Kaler.  A recent report by Minnesota Public Radio illustrates this.

The Legislature through the respective bodies such as Higher Ed Committees, chaired by Senator Michelle Fischbach and Representative Bud Nornes, or State Government Innovation and Veterans Committee chaired by Senator Mike Parry and House Government Operations and Elections, whose Chairperson is Joyce Peppin could hold, jointly or by themselves the oversight hearing.

Oversight which goes hand in hand with accountability can be used in this instance to see if there was poor administration of the U of M Presidential Selection process as it relates to the public.  Inform the public and to ensure that the choosing of our new President in the way it was done reflects the public interest.  To guarantee that the University complied with our state's open government laws.

Questions as to who, what, where, when, and why can and should be answered in the public arena.  Questions for example:
1. Who were the Regents who participated in the three 1 hour sessions in a row to interview Mr. Kaler?
2. Was the set up of three 1 hour sessions to avoid the Open Meeting Law?
3. What questions were asked by the Regents to Mr. Kaler in these private meetings?  What were the answers?
4. Where and when were the meetings, was it in a public place where the public could attend?
5. Why did the U make the kinds of decisions it did as reported in various media reports?

There needs to be a healthy, trustworthy, and transparent process for selecting the University President.  It is essential the people of Minnesota have confidence in one of its premier institutions, the University of Minnesota.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

$olutions in search of a problem

Ideas for legislation at the Minnesota Legislature come from different sources among those, citizens, government agencies, and private businesses. I have seen private sector interests write specific legislation, get it introduced, and then lobby for the specific bill.

For example, several years ago a business who provided services in the drug testing field got legislation introduced to change our drug testing law so that they could market their product.  Another bill was to allow Minnesota driver license pictures to be used for I.D. purposes for a specific product being promoted.  Both bills died.

There is though a new transformation of bill that I have not seen before.  Senate File 180, is an example of this.  The bill mandates the Department of Human Services to do a request for proposal for a vendor to do software and services for fraud prevention. The Department of Human Services says the bill is not theirs.  Is the bill written for a specific client in mind to get a contract?  Is this the case with this bill?  SAS Institute testified in support of the bill.  Did SAS Institute write the bill and then bring it to the attention of a legislator to have it introduced?

Another example is House File 174. The bill mandates that the Revenue Department set up a request for proposal to set up a system for better tax compliance among us taxpayers.  The same questions need to be asked. Is this bill being written for a specific client in mind to get a contract?  I have heard that a world-renowned accounting firm is behind this bill.  Did they write the bill?

Why does it matter who writes the bill?  It matters because the public wants the bidding process to be fair and competitive, not to be written with a specific contractor in mind which would eclipse accountability and transparency.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Shedding a Little Light on the U of M's Presidential Search

Kudos to Tim Post of Minnesota Public Radio(MPR) in using the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act in getting e-mails and other documents to shed more light on the Kaler pick for U of M President.  Reporter Post's story goes into detail as to how there were three one hour meetings in a row to meet with candidate, Kaler.  Also how there was a social dinner with the Board of Regents and the pre-selected President.

As I posted in November there were immediate concerns by myself as to the U being up to its old tricks again trying to avoid accountability, transparency, and not wanting to comply with the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.  As the MPR article states there is no smoking gun, but there is perception and reality.  In this case, perception is reality I contend there were violations.

The University of Minnesota wants the public to believe that there was no intention to violate the law.  If the public believes that, I have got a bridge I can sell you.

The bottom line is that the U and Regents did not want an open process for the selection of the President.  With the 2004 decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court not going in their favor the Board of Regents with counsel decided to weasel the process to their advantage to the edge of the law rather than make it a priority for the public business to be in the public.

There is no evidence as the article points out to show there is a violation.  I would suggest that the client, the U of M Board of Regents direct their attorney, Mark Rotenberg to release all e-mails and communication concerning the past Presidential selection process and all data that relates to the Open Meeting Law.  The attorney-client privilege can be waived by the client.  If some of the Regents are coming for reappointment this legislative session the legislators should ask them questions about their involvement and hold them accountable.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Secret Settlement between ACLU-MN and MN Dept. of Education?

I was somewhat struck by the "not comment" by the spokesperson, Charlene Briner, for the Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner.  Not public, the tentative terms of settlement agreement between the ACLU of Minnesota and the MN Education Department dealing with the TIZA school issue.  Does the Department believe that the tentative terms of settlement are not public? and if so what are the reasons?

In the Pioneer Press article, the public learns more about the agreement from Chuck Samuelson, ACLU-MN Director than from the state agency.  Mr. Samuelson states the settlement deals with measures to increase state oversight of charter schools.

Granted there was to be a settlement hearing today per the Pioneer Press article.  Whether or not the hearing deals with the agreed upon settlement with the Education Department is not clear

I have an understanding why government sometimes like to keep things not public.  In this case, I do not.

Confidentiality breeds a culture of secrecy. It is important that our government agencies do not develop those values or attitudes.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Guns, Data, and You

I was intrigued by a letter to the editor I read in the Star Tribune last week.  The letter stated how a person was denied a permit for a handgun and was not given a reason for the denial.  This is not that the first time, and will not be the last, a person does what they are supposed to do to get a permit or license for some type of government sanction or benefit, then denied and not told the reasons for the denial.  I and other Minnesotans have experienced situations like the letter writer has, maybe not specifically with gun permits.

For individual access to handguns there are two basic laws, the conceal and carry law and the permit to purchase.  I reviewed the two sections of law.

I noticed that if an individual applies under the permit to purchase there is no mention of reconsideration process as there is for conceal and carry law.  There is no guidance directing as to what should be stated in the denial document as there is in the carry statute.  For example, the statute states there must be a specific factual basis including the source of the factual basis if you are denied a carry permit.  Not the case for permit to purchase which states specific reasons for the denial.  Granted, on first sight when a person reads the statute it seems that the denial document would be the same in both instances, but more than likely it is not.

For a person to have knowledge why the government denies them some benefit, permit, or license is important and a constitutional right.

I do not know what happened in Mr. Swenson's case(author of the letter)and his relationship with the Coon Rapids Police Department, but I would suggest to him to use the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act to find out.

The part of the Act that allows an individual to access public and private information about themselves.  He may find out the reason if Coon Rapids Police still has the data.

As for you, remember getting the answer for why not, is just as important as to the why.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Next on Cops-Parking in Your Medicine Cabinet?

There are many truisms that I have learned on privacy matters.  Two of those are the following:  There is always money from the Federal Government to set up databases. The second, build a database and they will come.  They being groups, special interests, and other parties who want to use the databases, and in many cases law enforcement.

Several years ago the Congress passed the National All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting Act which gave money to the states to set up databases for controlled drugs to be reported to state agencies.  Minnesota got money to do that. The Legislature passed the law to set it up, but with major privacy protections.

The Minnesota Board of Pharmacy by law administers the database.

Two of the major privacy protections is that law enforcement can only get access to the database with a valid search warrant and that the data about a person's prescriptions is held for a short period of time.

In my conversation with a Board of Pharmacy employee in December, 2010, I was told there were over a million people in the database with about 5 million prescriptions recorded.

Recently, at an advisory board meeting that helps the Board of Pharmacy oversee the electronic prescription program there was a presentation of law enforcements interests.  Those interests were to lower the threshold for police access to the database to an administrative subpoena and two to extend the length of how long your prescription record should be retained.

There is discussion of having these various databases throughout the country be linked through an interstate compact law.   There are also various standards and levels of privacy protection.  Minnesota is one of the best for privacy protections.