Legislator’s job as teacher union lawyer raises conflict of interest concerns

By: - March 18, 2021 5:59 am

Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, has opted not to run for Hennepin County attorney.

Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, is pushing for laws to change Minnesota’s teacher license system this session, which also happens to be a legislative priority of his employer when he’s not at the Capitol: Education Minnesota, the teachers union representing more than 80,000 teachers.

Frazier isn’t alone in advocating for bills that are aligned with his work outside the Legislature. Last session, Rep. Kaohly Her, DFL-St. Paul, authored a bill to fund savings plans for infants — an idea pitched by St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, for whom she works as a policy director. Former Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, was criticized for introducing a bill to allocate nearly $1 million in bonds for a college after he applied for a job there. Both disputed any conflicts of interest. 

Experts say Minnesota’s citizen Legislature establishes a system rife with possible conflicts of interest. Legislators make $46,500 for the five-month session, so many have other jobs. The Legislature is filled with teachers, doctors, insurance and real estate agents, prosecutors, restaurateurs and electricians. This creates lots of diverse expertise, but also the potential for them to introduce or vote on bills that further their own business or professional interests over the interests of their constituents, experts say. 

David Schultz, former director of government transparency organization Common Cause, said there’s nothing wrong with lawmakers introducing legislation about which they may be experts. But issues arise, he said, when Minnesotans are left to wonder, “Is the legislation introduced here to benefit the state of Minnesota, or to benefit the employer?”

Frazier said the union didn’t ask him to carry the bills and doesn’t support every provision included in the legislation. When he was elected, Education Minnesota decided to create a “firewall” between his work for the union and work as a legislator by excluding him from discussions, meetings or emails about legislation, according to an Education Minnesota memo provided to the Reformer. Frazier said he’s working part time for Education Minnesota during the legislative session, primarily with individual clients and not on policy matters.

“I’m almost on an island now. I’m not engaged in conversations on policy or any type of legislative priorities,” Frazier said. “I’ve been walled off.”

Frazier’s two bills would change certain requirements in Minnesota’s teacher licensure system and align with Education Minnesota’s goals to “close the loophole that allows a candidate to attain a Tier 3 license without any type of teacher preparation” and “ensure Tier 1 licenses are appropriately granted,” according to its website.

Frazier said he doesn’t see any conflicts of interest between his work as a legislator and at Education Minnesota. The bills were developed by the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board with feedback from focus groups, education organizations and school administrators.

Frazier, who has also been a public defender and administrator in the Minneapolis Public School District, said he has been open about his background and current job, and sees his experiences as beneficial to his work at the Legislature. Still, he expected some people would question his role with the teachers union, he said, given the political tension between the union and anti-union education advocates in Minnesota. 

“It’s a fair question,” he said. “But my perspective comes from seeing these issues from all sides. At the end of the day, my main focus that I’m advocating for and pushing for is that we have to have better outcomes for our Black and brown students.”

Concerns about real or perceived conflicts of interest in the Legislature come up almost every year, Schultz said. It doesn’t help that Minnesota has fallen behind in government transparency and disclosure laws, he said.

Minnesota led the nation in ethics policies in the 90s but hasn’t made significant change since. In 2018, the state received a D- from the Center for Public Integrity for its policies on government accountability, disclosure and ethics enforcement. 

“There’s this self-image that we have that we’re good, clean and tidy as a state. When you start to dip below (the surface), we’re not,” Schultz said.

A bill introduced by Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Crystal, would prohibit legislators from being employed by businesses that primarily work in lobbying and government relations. Under current state law, legislators can’t be registered lobbyists. Munson said he’s concerned about conflicts of interest that could arise when lawmakers take on other roles at lobbying firms. 

“We have a law that says lobbyists can’t give a legislator more than $5, but we don’t have a law that says a lobbying firm can’t give a legislator a six-figure salary,” Munson said.

Munson’s bill is widely perceived to take aim at House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman. 

Daudt’s role at Stateside Associates, a Virginia-based government relations firm, has also raised questions over the influence of private interests at the Legislature. Daudt is the director of public affairs, “availing clients of his deep knowledge of the legislative process, public policy experience and access to elected and appointed leaders and officials in all 50 states,” according to Stateside’s website.

(A spokesperson for Daudt said nonpartisan staff reviewed his position and determined there were no conflicts of interest. Daudt isn’t involved in lobbying and doesn’t work for Stateside on issues related to Minnesota, the spokesperson said.)

Schultz said he often hears legislators say if only the public knew the facts of a potentially troubling situation, they would understand that it was all above board. “For the public, appearance is reality,” Schultz tells them. “What they see is what the reality is.”

“If the whole goal is for people to feel confident that you’re putting the state of Minnesota first — which is your job — appearance is just as important as real conflict of interest,” he said.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.