Documents show interplay between MN governor, news media

By Mike Kaszuba

In the final days of last year’s legislative session, there was widespread grumbling – again – that many of the big decisions involving top Minnesota legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton were happening behind closed doors.

The complaint was hardly new.  Often, as the governor and legislative leaders meet to negotiate a final budget agreement, reporters literally sit outside the governor’s office, waiting to grab key leaders as they shuttle in and out of meetings.  Dayton, in fact, called for a “cone of silence” during last year’s talks.   House Minority Leader Paul Thissen – like Dayton, a DFLer – said that the session’s end was “worse than usual in the lack of transparency and public input” and urged that the public “have more information” about the process.

Documents obtained by Public Record Media reveal a paradox about last spring’s end-of-session activity:  While the governor and legislative leaders kept the 2015 budget negotiations private, Dayton’s own staff was regularly briefing the governor about what reporters were doing on an almost daily basis.

Briefings about press activity

Many of the governor’s press briefings were contained in a “communications update” that was regularly sent to Gov. Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith.  In a May 5, 2015 e-mail, for example, Dayton staffer Linden Zakula told Dayton and Smith what to expect when the Metropolitan Council responded to a data request from WCCO-TV regarding the Southwest Light Rail project – a hot topic at the Legislature that year.

“Most e-mails are pretty standard and not newsworthy,” Zakula wrote.  He summarized the contents of the data cache by stating that some e-mails showed press releases and other materials that were “much more positive” about the future of the project than the final drafts.  “However,” Zakula noted, “[we]. . .are not overly concerned about the stories it may generate.”

In another e-mail on April 30, Zakula outlined an upcoming story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Medicaid fraud prevention.  The Department of Human Services “spoke with the Star Tribune today,” Zakula informed Dayton and Smith.  “The reporter interviewed DHS Inspector General Jerry Kerber earlier this week.  We expect the story to be favorable.”

Zakula also told the governor and lieutenant governor in early May about a KARE-TV request for records regarding a story on PCA fraud.  He explained that state human services officials had determined “that much of the information requested by the reporter is not public” and that “no timeline for the new story is known.”

On another hot-button political issue – the state’s predatory/sex offender registry – staff briefed the governor on May 4 about an upcoming WCCO-TV story.  In particular, the governor was told that the state Department of Public Safety “declined an on-camera interview request because the reporter wouldn’t share what the topic would be” and that “WCCO may be working on a story about a specific case for the immediate future.”

The governor’s briefings were not confined to local media.  On April 28, Dayton was told that “[t]he New York Times contacted the [state Department of Health] today for a long-term story about the autism rates in the Somali community.  The reporter plans to set up an interview with the agency next week.”

PolyMet data requests

Dayton was also kept closely informed about the state’s response to requests for public data concerning the controversial PolyMet mining project on Minnesota’s Iron Range.  In a June 18 briefing, Dayton was told by a staff member that “[e]arlier today, I sent you the [state Department of Natural Resource’s] cover letter” intended for individuals who had requested the PolyMet environmental impact statement.  “Are you okay with the contents of this letter,” the governor was asked, “and can we tell the DNR to proceed with fulfilling these Data Practices Requests tomorrow?”

Examining Twitter content

Documents obtained by PRM also show that the governor was kept informed about the Twitter activity of both reporters and legislators alike.  A list of Twitter posts sent to Dayton last May 16 included a message from reporter Brian Bakst that quoted Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk as saying that he’d be “disappointed’ if Dayton vetoed a particular education bill.  The Twitter list included several other education-related posts from Minnesota lawmakers.

End-of-session communications

As the legislative session came to a close in early June, Dayton was briefed on how one of his key staff members answered questions about the governor’s actions in the session’s last hours.  A June 8 briefing for Dayton related that “Jaime Tincher spent about 30 minutes with the Star Tribune today talking about the negotiating in the final hours of the legislative session.  She did a great job.  [The reporter] seemed skeptical at first, but Jaime walked them through everything, we provided documentation of her account, and [the reporter] believed what we were telling him.”

The briefings for Dayton and his lieutenant governor came as reporters,  politicians, and the public expressed frustration that key legislative agreements were once again being negotiated behind closed doors.  According to documents obtained by PRM, Dayton’s staff told the governor to be prepared for questions about criticisms over the private meetings.  Among the questions the governor was told to be ready for were:

“Why were negotiations conducted behind closed doors?  Was that at your request?  Does the public have a right to know how these decisions are made?

“Is it true that you got mad and demanded a cone of silence?  Why did you not speak with reporters over the last four days?”

The governor’s staff also made sure that Dayton was aware of what Bakk and House Speaker Kurt Daudt were saying, providing him with transcripts of their interviews with reporters.  During a press conference last May 15, Bakk – who was then meeting privately with Dayton and Daudt — was asked “how do you justify this lack of transparency?”

A transcript of the event quoted Bakk as saying that Dayton had become upset about rhetoric used in “dueling” public press conferences, and urged that a ‘cone of silence’ be placed over discussions instead.  “I’ve been through that before,” Bakk said.  [It] isn’t that uncommon, when you get down to the final nuts and bolts of putting the budget deal together  … I think probably in most years this has happened.”

A few days before Bakk’s May 15 press conference, Kurt Daudt – the ranking Republican at the state Capitol – joked about the private meetings with Bakk and the governor during a WCCO-AM radio interview.  “Could you do us a favor and leave your phone on at the end of this conversation and then just keep it there when you guys are meeting?” the reporter asked, according to a transcript provided to Dayton.  “Sure,” said Daudt, laughing.  “I’ll put it on speaker phone.  Yeah, no problem.”

Last year’s closed-door meetings brought public criticism, but also calls for change. Before the 2016 legislative session began in March of this year, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen outlined a series of proposals that he said would promote transparency, including giving lawmakers more time to analyze last-minute legislation, and asking for a study to see whether members of the legislature should be subject to open records laws.

Briefings on solar incentives, education issues

As last year’s legislative session came to an end, Dayton continued to get briefings on upcoming media stories.  On June 8, the governor’s staff told Dayton that a Star Tribune story about solar incentive rates that Silicon Energy received from the Commerce Department was “expected to run this Sunday.”  Staff noted that the story was expected to be “negative … and will suggest that the department bowed to pressure from lobbyist Gary Cerkvenik.  Commerce believes Cerkvenik is the broader focus of the story.”

The briefing was the second time in a month that Dayton had been alerted to the Star Tribune’s inquiries into Silicon Energy.  A few weeks earlier, the governor had been told that the “Star Tribune filed a data practice request with the IRRRB [i.e., Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board] … regarding the agency’s loans to Silicon Energy.  The company, which produces solar panels, fell behind on its loans in 2012. . .The last time the IRRRB communications staff checked on the status of the Silicon Energyloans, they were up-to-date.  The IRRRB hasn’t responded to the request yet.”

On June 8, Dayton was also told that MinnPost was writing a story about a  lawsuit against the state board of teaching which claimed “that the portfolio process for licensure was ‘wrongfully stopped.’”  Staff from the state Department of Education “told the reporter the process stopped because there wasn’t adequate funding.”  Nevertheless, state officials “expect[ed] a negative story that suggests we are going out of our way to stop the alternative licensing process.”

The governor was even briefed on what appeared to be innocuous press inquiries.  According to documents obtained by PRM, Dayton was told early last May that the Star Tribune would be talking to the state Department of Education “to get a better understanding of how formula funding works.  The reporter is trying to understand the differences between your proposal, the Senate proposal, and the House proposal.  No story is pending.”

The next day, Dayton was again briefed on the Star Tribune’s inquiry into educational formula funding.  “As planned, [state education staff] spoke with the Star Tribune today about how the school funding formula works.  The reporter is writing a story about the assertion of some school districts that they are facing a funding pinch.  The department walked the reporter through the formula and how funding increases have compared with inflation during the last decade.  This article is for later this week.”

Post-session activity

After the year’s legislative session ended, the governor’s office moved to its next phase:  highlighting for reporters the administration’s accomplishments in the form of newly passed laws.  “Below are my proposed items that we should pitch the press next week,” Cambray Crozier, a member of the governor’s staff, wrote in a June 26 e-mail.  “Attached is a broader list of newsworthy laws or funding that will take effect, sorted by [state] agency.  Also attached is a communications plan for [the] agencies.”