Scott M. Larson
A Senate ethics committee implicated a former University dean on Friday as the driving force behind what it called an inappropriate and unethical coverup of a payment to a state senator.
The Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct concluded the payment between the University and Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples, was legal. However, efforts to cover up a $12,500 payment were inappropriate. The University also released a report on Friday with similar findings.
Mike Martin, former dean of the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences, paid Sams through a third party and orchestrated a backdated contract, according to evidence presented to the committee in a Jan. 12 hearing.
The committee recommended that Sams step down from his position as vice chairman of the Human Resources Finance Committee, issue a public apology and be reprimanded by the full Senate.
But Sams would still hold his chairmanship of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee and the Minnesota Agriculture Education Leadership Council, even though it was in this capacity that he signed the contract in question.
The recommendations will be reviewed by the Rules and Administration Committee and brought to the full Senate floor today.
“I hope that I can gain the respect of my constituents and colleagues,” Sams said.
What a tangled webwe weave
The University received a $1 million appropriation from the state Legislature in a bill authored by Sams in the spring of 1997.
That summer, Martin agreed to pay Sams $12,500 for consulting work.
Fearful that the payment would look like a conflict of interest, Sams terminated that deal before it was ever drawn.
About a month later, Martin agreed to pay Sams through an independent third party: Media Integrated Training Services, a St. Paul business. Martin gave the company $13,500 for CD-ROMs; the outside company produced $1,000 worth of CDs to the University and handed over the remaining $12,500 to Sams.
Martin originally paid the senator with public money from the state appropriation.
After University staff confronted Martin and an internal audit raised flags, he replaced the money from the state-appropriated fund with money from a private donor.
According to Senate evidence, Martin drafted a letter of agreement between Sams and Tom Powell, owner of Media Integrated Training Services, with instructions to backdate the document. The agreement was supposed to prove that Sams had intended to receive private fund money all along.
The letter was signed on Oct. 1, 1997, but Powell testified that he drafted the letter in June 1998. Sams received the money March 9, 1998.
“We made a bad judgment and there’s really no reason for it,” Sams said.
False and misleading testimony
The subcommittee’s report is relatively forgiving of Sams. Instead, it points to the inappropriate actions of Martin — and it was intended that way.
“We believe that Dr. Martin engaged in a number of inappropriate activities,” said Ember Reichgott Junge, DFL-New Hope. “Dr. Martin, in my view, was the center person in all of this.”
The report states that Martin “gave false and misleading testimony” under oath before the committee. He also drafted a letter of agreement between Sams and Powell, which became the backdated document, according to the report.
Martin said he merely gavesuggestions for the letter of agreement.
The report concluded that there was no conflict of interest when Sams did consulting work for the University, because there was no agreement or promise of a kickback before the legislation passed.
“No testimony was presented suggesting that he sponsored the (Minnesota Agriculture Education Leadership Council) legislation in return for a promise of employment or a resulting contract,” the report stated.
In fact, the transcripts of the hearings showed that Martin didn’t want the legislation at all.
Junge said her committee “agonized” for two weeks over an appropriate recommendation to the full Senate. Junge is chairwoman of the ethical conduct subcommittee.
The committee recommended that Sams keep his position as chairman of the agriculture committee, which means he will remain chairman of the Minnesota Agriculture Education Leadership Council.
Senators have only been removed from committee chairmanships when they are convicted of criminal offenses, Junge explained.
She said the committee looked for the next appropriate punishment for Sams and decided to remove him from the Human Resources Finance Committee, of which he is vice-chairman. Although the human services committee has no relation to the scandal, it is more powerful than the agriculture committee and those positions are highly coveted, Junge said.
The report did not stipulate how long he would be banned from the committee, but Junge said at maximum, he would be off until the end of his term in 2000.
Junge said she and her committee members will not refer the matter for criminal investigation. The testimony and evidence are on the public record and available for county attorneys to take up.
The University reiterates
The University’s general counsel’s office on Friday released a similar report detailing the incident.
The report came to the conclusion that although the payment through a third party was lawful, the contract wasn’t appropriate.
“We found that this was a bad business practice,” said Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel. Contracts need to specify who is doing the consulting and what they are doing, which didn’t happen in this instance.
Friday’s report was a supplement to a previous report the office drew up in October. The new report was released because Powell told the Senate committee the contract was backdated. Sams, Martin and Powell lied to Rotenberg when he initially investigated the controversy surrounding the payment, Rotenberg said.
The difference between the general counsel and the Senate, he said, is that the University does not have the power to subpoena witnesses or swear them in under oath. Thus, there can be no repercussions for the lies.
Sams did, however, provide the University with valuable consulting services even though he did not have a contract with the University, the report stated.
“It appears that they are clinging to a thread that Sams actually provided value to the University,” said Andy Kirn, executive director of Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, the nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group that investigated the scandal.
Kirn disputed claims that Sams did substantial work and pointed to a 13-point plan that came out of the program.
“Sams said it was an insignificant part of what he did,” Kirn said.
“I actually drafted most of it.”
The Senate report cited Martin frequently and brought to light many contradictions in his sworn testimony.
“I’m very upset about being sort of blamed for this when I’m not there to defend myself,” Martin said. The former dean moved in October to take a job at the University of Florida.
Martin said the letter of agreement was strictly between Sams and Powell. He might have offered them suggestions, but did not have any other involvement with the document.
But when the committee members asked if he helped write the contract he said, “Yeah, I actually drafted most of it. Not with Dallas (Sams).”
Also before the committee, Martin kept changing his testimony about when contracts were drawn and signed. The committee report states: “Dr. Martin gave additional conflicting and confusing testimony under oath about documents he personally prepared.”
Martin said it was difficult to testify because he didn’t have any documents in front of him.
However, the transcripts of the testimony point out numerous occasions when Martin asked Junge if she had various key documents, to which she often answered “No.”
Then George M. McCormick, the Senate’s counsel, expressed dissatisfaction to Martin:
“If you have something that is relevant that you think we should have, we would appreciate it very much if you would send it to us.”