By Don Davis
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton broke the law when he took a campaign aide with him on a 2012 state airplane trip, the legislative auditor said Thursday.
Auditor James Nobles also said state law is not clear about whether the governor can use a state airplane for traveling to political events.
The auditor scolded Dayton for taking a campaign aide with him to Bemidji and International Falls on Oct. 24, 2012. Dayton Chief of Staff Tina Smith responded: “This was an error and will not happen again.”
She said that, unless the law changes, the governor will continue his practice of reimbursing the state when making political stops as part of an official state trip. However, she said, the governor’s campaign will charter a private plane when Dayton’s trips are only for political purposes.
The auditor reported that Dayton flew in a state plane 55 times from when he took office on Jan. 3, 2011, through June 30, 2013. Three of the trips included political events.
Critics brought to state officials’ attention the 2012 flight from St. Paul to Bemidji and on to International Falls. Dayton held one official meeting in Bemidji about wording on a sign and a political event there and one in International Falls.
The auditor also looked into a Sept. 28, 2012, flight to Willmar and a Sept. 20, 2012, trip to Brainerd. All the trips included a mix of official and political events.
Dayton’s campaign paid nearly two-thirds of the $3,000 cost of the Bemidji-International Falls trip and half of the Brainerd and Willmar trips.
“In no circumstance do taxpayers bear any costs for a state plane used for the governor’s political travel,” Smith said.
The Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a conservative group, raised the travel issue after it learned a top political aide traveled with the governor to Bemidji and International Falls, but there were no official aides on the trip.
Deputy Dayton Chief of Staff Bob Hume said that the governor would have flown to Bemidji to discuss the sign wording dispute even without political events on his schedule because the issue was important to those in the area. Hume said that Dayton has made many similar trips around the state.
Ben Golnik of the coalition distributed copies of a document showing that a top Dayton aide arranging for the flight certified that it was “for official business only and is in the interests of the state.”
The coalition and Common Cause Minnesota urged Dayton to follow the auditor’s recommendation of putting more distance between politics and official business.
“Minnesota citizens deserve the highest level of conduct from their elected officials,” said Jeremy Schroeder, Common Cause Minnesota executive director. “Furthermore, a clear line must be drawn between campaigning for re-election and serving the people of Minnesota. It is disappointing that the office of Gov. Dayton blurred that line and further states that the current policy is enough.”
Nobles suggested that the Legislature clarify state law.
The auditor said that if lawmakers decide to change the law, they “should expressly require reimbursement from the appropriate political organization.”
The auditor’s office reported that generally in state government, public money cannot be used for private or political purposes. However, “it has been generally accepted” that state money can be used to pay for state troopers to protect the governor at all times and that he may use a state vehicle to travel to any event.
Thursday’s audit report also said Dayton’s office improperly hired an attorney to assist before and during the July 2011 state government shutdown. “The engagement letter did not specify an expiration date, did not limit the compensation amount and did not contain certain statutory contract requirements and other standard contract clauses required by state policy designed to protect the state’s interests.”
At first, the governor’s office expected the legal advice to be provided free, the auditor’s report indicated, but after the shutdown ended Dayton authorized a $77,000 payment.