Satveer Chaudhary loves the outdoors. An avid hunter and fisherman, the Fridley, Minnesota resident hosts a television show on the 24/7 cable television network, The Sportsman Channel. But he has another role as well: member of the Minnesota legislature. And a number of people are wondering about the consequences of what appears to be the convergence of the two. In Minnesota, at least, renowned for high ethical standards for public officials, this may amount to more than a tempest in a teapot.
Chaudhary, a Democrat, chairs the Senate Environmental and Natural Resources Committee. Back in January he purchased a snowmobile at a modest discount from the Thief River Falls, Minn.-based manufacturer, Arctic Cat, not long after he’d borrowed it for a segment of his “Born to Be Wild” show (he paid $8,500 rather than the suggested retail price of $10,330). Not long after, he backed legislation to require the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to purchase snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles only from manufacturers operating within the state. This wasn’t the first time he seemingly did the bidding of a donor. Last year, he sponsored a bill endorsed by the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters and Joiners to curb the use of independent contractors in the construction industry. The council, coincidentally or not, paid $15,000 to be a sponsor of “Born to Be Wild.”
This year’s bill didn’t pass; last year’s did. Regardless of outcome, critics are pointing to an ethics problem. “It smells awful,” said David Schultz, an attorney and professor of management at Hamline University in St. Paul. “He has got an intermixing of his professional life, legislation he is introducing, lobbyists and PACs – and is mixing it in a way that he can’t separate those roles out.” Both the snowmobile industry and the Carpenters union have lobbyists; the union also has a political action committee (PAC).
Minnesota state law bans acceptance of lobbying-related gifts. Yet Chaudhary responds that he broke no laws because his production company provided a service – in this case, advertising. What’s more, the donations didn’t influence his vote. “Nothing in my labor record reflects anything different than what I have done for the last 10 years,” he said. The union doesn’t have a problem either. “Our union members love to hunt and fish,” said Kyle Makarios, political director for the Carpenters’ regional council. “Our members are for the most part working-class guys and tend to live in exurban and rural areas – it is the demographic.” He insists the Carpenters’ lobbying team had nothing to do with the union’s decision to sponsor the show.
The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board notes that public officials are not prohibited from having business relationships with lobbyists. None of Senator Chaudhary’s actions are illegal, so far as one knows. But they ought to raise concerns about the exposure to potential conflicts of interest faced by lawmakers. Unions surely have never been shy about pursuing their own interests. (StarTribune.com, 5/17/08).