Lobbyist regrets wording in message that brought ethics complaint

A lobbyist says he regrets how he worded an e-mail that Minnesota’s top senator interpreted as calling on city officials to lie.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, alleges that J.D. Burton, who lobbies for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, breached ethics in an e-mail that advises city officials not tell legislators that they can handle a cut in Local Government Aid, even if the communities already had planned for the cut.

“At the state Capitol, we take people at their word and expect them to be honest with us, as we are with others,” Koch wrote to the Minnesota Government Relations Council, and asked the lobbyist group to find that Burton violated its ethics policy.

While the council considers the issue, Burton on Friday delivered letters to all 201 legislators apologizing for what he called a “poorly worded” message.

“At no point was my intent to ask our cities to be dishonest with their legislators,” Burton wrote.

“I regret that sentence was crafted in haste and not more carefully examined…” he added.

The e-mail sent to city officials said: “Please do not tell (the legislator) the cut (to LGA) is OK because you planned for it, even if you did.”

Burton’s boss at the Flaherty and Hood law firm, Tim Flaherty, said he has asked to meet with Koch because no one who works for him ever would tell officials to lie.

“It was easily misunderstood, or misinterpreted,” Flaherty said. “It was ambiguous.”

The intent of the message, Flaherty said, was to tell legislators that cutting state aid to cities “was not OK, regardless of whether they planned for it or not.”

The Republican-controlled Legislature already passed a bill, which was vetoed by Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton, to trim aid the state sends to local governments below what was expected. While the budget proposal Dayton released Tuesday does not cut aid, Republicans are expected to insist on it when they pass a $30 billion-plus budget this spring.

Flaherty said some cities did not include any aid increase in the budgets they already have approved, but other cities do count on the money. One of the coalition’s priorities for years has been to maintain or increase state payments to cities.

Koch said Burton’s e-mail is the only time she has seen what she felt was a lobbyist encouraging lying. She said that she does not feel the situation rises to the level of taking it to the Senate ethics committee, which can dish out stronger penalties than the lobbyist organization.

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