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Last reviewed April 2014

Resources on Minnesota Issues
Legislative Ethics

This guide is compiled by staff at the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library on a topic of interest to Minnesota legislators. It is designed to provide an introduction to the topic, directing the user to a variety of sources, and is not intended to be exhaustive.

The Minnesota Legislature is given the power to govern the ethical behavior of its members by Article IV, Section 7 of the Minnesota Constitution, which gives each chamber of the Legislature the power to punish its members for "disorderly behavior" as well as the power to expel a member with a two-thirds vote. Much of the debate over legislative ethics centers on the meaning of "disorderly behavior." It has generally been taken to include unethical political behavior, actions which may not be illegal according to civil or criminal codes but are an abuse of the public trust and bring discredit upon the institution of the Legislature.

The scope of ethical behavior within the Minnesota Legislature has been delineated by the rules of both the House and the Senate:

These rules treat the topics of accepting honoraria, distributing materials about another member that are known to be libelous, conflicts of interest, prohibited campaign activities, proper relations with lobbyists, and even smoking in the Capitol building.

Additionally, there are state statutes and rules dealing with such issues as public disclosure of economic interests, campaign finance reporting, and lobbyist registration. These statutes and rules can be found in Minnesota Statutes, chapter 10A, and Minnesota Rules, chapters 4501, 4503, 4505, 4511, 4512, 4515, 4520, and 4525.

The Minnesota Legislature is largely self-governing, with two committees and one state board overseeing ethical behavior.

  • Senate. The Ethical Conduct Subcommittee (a subcommittee of the Senate's Rules and Administration Committee) reviews conduct in the Senate when necessary. The Ethical Conduct Subcommittee, as detailed in Rule 55 of the Permanent Rules of the Senate, consists of four members and acts in an investigative and advisory capacity. The subcommittee provides confidential advice and recommendations to employees and members of the Senate and will also investigate a complaint by a member of the Senate regarding improper conduct by a member or employee of the Senate.

  • House. The House Ethics Committee, as detailed in Rule 6.10 of the Permanent Rules of the House, also consists of four members, two from the majority and two from the minority, and acts in an investigatory capacity in response to complaints made in writing.

  • State board. The Minnesota Campaign Finance & Public Disclosure Board is composed of six members appointed by the governor and has as its stated mission to "promote public confidence in state government decision making through development, administration, and enforcement of disclosure and public financing programs which will ensure public access to and understanding of information filed with the Board." The Board's duties include lobbyist registration, maintaining files of economic interests of candidates for public office in Minnesota, registering campaign finance programs, and administering the provisions of Minnesota Statutes, chapter 10A, including investigating alleged violations. The Board also issues advisory opinions in response to queries from individuals or organizations.

The rules of the House and Senate are not laws; a member violating one of the rules cannot be arrested, tried, or sentenced in a court of law, nor can the violation of any of the statutes in Minnesota Statutes, chapter 10A be considered a crime (Minnesota Statutes, section 10A.34, subdivision 3). The proceedings of the House and Senate ethics committees are a separate process from any criminal investigation and are not admissible in criminal proceedings, and any punishment for violating the tenets of ethical behavior as outlined in the rules of the House and Senate and the Minnesota Rules and Statutes is strictly internal.

The disciplinary process begins when someone submits a complaint to one of the three bodies in charge of overseeing legislative ethics.

  • Senate. In the Senate, a complaint about a member or an employee must be in writing under oath and submitted to the Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct during a legislative session. The subcommittee has thirty days to either make a finding of no probable cause, defer proceedings, or to launch an investigation. The entire process is described in Rule 55 of the Permanent Rules of the Senate.

  • House. In the House, a complaint about a member must be in writing, under oath, signed by two or more members of the House, and contain factual evidence supporting the complaint. A complaint is submitted to the Speaker of the House, and the complainants must give a copy of the complaint and any supporting materials to any member named in the complaint. Within seven days after receiving a complaint, the Speaker must refer the complaint to the Ethics Committee for processing by the committee.

  • State board. Any citizen who believes that a provision of Minnesota Statutes, chapter 10A has been violated may make a complaint to the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board according to the process detailed in Minnesota Rules, chapter 4525.0200. Disciplinary actions are not specified in any of the rules or statutes but can range from requiring a public apology, making restitution, loss of seniority and leadership positions, censure, or expulsion.

Significant Books and Reports (Minnesota):

Advisory Opinions. Saint Paul: Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, 1976- . (Reference KFM5806 .A554)

Code of Conduct Policy. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, 2007. (KFM5821.5.L4 C63 2007)

Diebel, Jeff and Mark Shepard Legislative Ethics: A Guide to Minnesota Laws and Rules for House Members and Staff. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, House Research Department, 2010. (KFM5821.5.L4 A25 2010)

Ethics and Conduct. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, 2007. (KFM5821.5.L4 E84 2007)

Ethics Cases Considered by the House and Senate Ethics Committees. Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, 2012.

Minutes and Related Materials. St. Paul: Minnesota Special Task Force to Revamp House Ethics, 1996. (JK6174.8 M563 1996)

Official Conflict of Interest. St. Paul: League of Minnesota Cities, 2012. (KFM5806 .O44 2012)

Wattson, Peter S. Gifts To Public Officials. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Office of Senate Counsel, 2003. (KFM5806 .W37 2003)

Wattson, Peter S. Legislative Immunity In Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Office of Senate Counsel, 2010. (KFM5821.5.L4 W37 2010)

Significant Books and Reports (Reports on specific Minnesota cases):

The Library has notebooks containing news articles, transcripts, and other materials relating to many (although not all) ethical conduct cases within the Minnesota Legislature. The fact that an investigation was made about a member of the Legislature is not an indication of that member's guilt; it merely means that an investigation was made into an alleged violation of ethical conduct standards.

Advisory Opinion on Conflict of Interest. (Senator Satveer S. Chaudhary.) St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 2008. (KFM5821.5.L4 A522 2008)

Advisory Opinion on Conflict of Interest. (Senator Satveer S. Chaudhary.) St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 2010. (KFM5821.5.L4 A52 2010)

Advisory Opinion on Conflict of Interest. (Senator Brian LeClair.) St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 2004. (KFM5821.5.L4 A52 2004)

Advisory Opinion on Conflict of Interest. (Senator Julianne Ortman.) St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 2008. (KFM5821.5.L4 A52 2008)

Advisory Opinion on Conflict of Interest. (Senator Dan Stevens.) St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 1999. (KFM5821.5.L4 A52 1999)

Ethical Conduct. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 1995-. (JK6174.8 .E84) (These notebooks contain transcripts, letters and memoranda relating to the proceedings of the Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct in response to complaints about various senators.)

Conduct of John Berglund: Final Report. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 1998. (JK6174.5 .C55 1998)

Conduct of Senator Kevin M. Chandler: Report to the Committee on Rules and Administration. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 1996. (JK6174.8 .C66 1996)

Conduct of Senator Florian Chmielewski: Report to the Committee on Rules and Administration. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 1996. (JK6174.8 .C663 1996)

Conduct of Dean E. Johnson: Final Report. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 2006. (KFM5821.5.L4 A52 2006)

Conduct of Senator Michael J. Jungbauer: Final Report. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 2005. (JK1991.5.M6 C66 2005)

Ethics Committee Hearing in the Matter of the Complaint Against Representative Paul Gardner, June 2, 2009.

In the Matter of the Complaint of Senator Nicholas D. Coleman and Senator Robert O. Ashbach Dated March 25, 1975: Senate Special Committee on Ethical Conduct Report. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Senate Special Committee on Ethical Conduct, 1975. (KFM5821.5.L33 I5 1975)

Materials Relating to the Investigation of the Conduct of Representative Robert Johnson by the Minnesota House Committee on Ethics. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, Committee on Ethics, 1996. (JK6174.8 .M38 1996)

Materials Relating to the Investigation into the Conduct of Representative Arlon Lindner by the Minnesota House Committee on Ethics During the 2000 Legislative Session. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, Committee on Ethics, 2003. (KFM5411.4 .E85 2000)

Materials Relating to the Investigation into the Conduct of Representative Arlon Lindner by the Minnesota House Committee on Ethics During the 2003 Legislative Session. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, Committee on Ethics, 2003. (KFM5411.4 .E85 2003)

Materials Relating to the Investigation into the Conduct of Representative Greg Davids by the Minnesota House Committee on Ethics During the 2004 Legislative Session. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, Committee on Ethics, 2004. (KFM5411.4.E85 2004)

Materials Relating to the Minnesota House of Representative’s Investigation of the Conduct of Representative James Abeler. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, 2001. (KFM5821.5.L4 A52 2001)

Materials Relating to the Minnesota House of Representative’s Investigation of the Conduct of Representative James Rostberg. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, 2000. (KFM5821.5.L4 A52 2000)

Minnesota House of Representatives Debate on the Censure Resolution on the Conduct of Rep. Jeff Bertram. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, House Television Services, 1996. [video recording] (KFM5821.5.L4 M56 1996)

Re: Senator Sam G. Solon. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate: Special Committee on Ethical Conduct, 1994. (JK6174.8 .S46 1994)

Appendix to Report on Senator Sam G. Solon's Use of Senate Telephone Service. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Senate Special Committee on Ethical Conduct, 1994. (JK6174.8 .S465 1994)

Conduct of Senator Sam G. Solon: Report to the Committee on Rules and Administration. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct, 1996. (JK6174.8 .C662 1996)

Report of the Select Committee on the Staten Case. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, Select Committee on the Staten Case, 1986. (JK6174.8 .M56 1986)

Transcripts of the Select Committee on the Staten Case. St. Paul: Minnesota House of Representatives, Select Committee on the Staten Case, 1986. (JK6174.8 .M562 1986)

Wattson, Peter S. Complaint of Kristina K. Pranke against the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources: Report on Investigation. St. Paul: Minnesota Senate, Special Committee on Ethical Conduct, 1994. (JK6174.8 .W38 1994)

Significant Books and Reports (General reports):

Beyond the Law: Special Report on Legislative Ethics. Sacramento, CA: The Council of State Governments-WEST, Winter 2007.

Disciplinary Actions in Other States' Legislative Bodies. Hartford, Conn.: Connecticut General Assembly, Office of Legislative Research: Legislative Commissioners Office, 2007. (JK2445.E8 D57 2007)

Ethics: How States Define Lobbying and Lobbyists Denver, CO: National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013. Available online to legislators and legislative staff.

Ethics: Legislator Gift Restrictions Overview. Denver, CO: National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013. Available online to legislators and legislative staff.

Ethics: Nepotism Restrictions for State Legislators Denver, CO: National Conference of State Legislatures, 2013. Available online to legislators and legislative staff.

Ethics Committees: Internal Oversight of Ethics Laws. Denver, CO: National Conference of State Legislatures, 2008. Available online to legislators and legislative staff.

Hess, Stephen. The Little Book of Campaign Etiquette: For Everyone with a Stake in Politicians and Journalists. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998. (JK2281 .H49 1998)

Model Code of Conduct for Legislative Staff. Denver, CO: National Conference of State Legislatures, 2012. (JK2488 .M63 1996 Amended January 2012)

Morgan, Peter W. The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society. New York: Free Press, 1997. (HN90.M6 M69 1997)

Our Private Legislatures: Public Service, Personal Gain. Washington, DC: Center for Public Integrity, 2000. (JK2488 .O87 2000)

Rosenthal, Alan. The Ethics Process in State Legislatures: Disciplining Members in a Public Forum. Denver, CO: State Legislative Leaders Foundation: National Conference of State Legislatures, 1999. (JK2445.E8 R81 1999)

The State of State Legislative Ethics: a Look at the Ethical Climate and Ethics Laws for State Legislators. Denver, CO: National Conference of State Legislatures, Center for Ethics in Government, 2002. (JK2445.E8 S73 2002)

Significant Articles:

Peters, Joey. "Minnesota's Legislative Disclosure Rules: Why Are They So Weak?" MinnPost, November 9, 2009.

Simons, Abby. "Attorney General Swanson: Legislators' Immunity Won't Stop DWIs". Star Tribune, April 24, 2014. (See also: Attorney General Lori Swanson's April 22, 2014, letter to Senator Ron Latz concerning Privilege from Arrest).

Significant Internet Resources:

Center for Ethics in Government -- Part of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Center seeks to restore confidence in representational democracy by developing ethical standards for legislators and advocates, conducting training programs in ethical decision making, building a base of information on each state's ethics laws and rules, and establishing a clearinghouse of best practices. Login required.

Center for Public Integrity - A nonpartisan organization that seeks to investigate and analyze public service, government accountability, and ethics-related issues.

Common Cause - A citizen's lobbying organization promoting open, honest and accountable government. Includes state information.

Council on Governmental Ethics Laws - An organization comprised of states' agencies responsible for administering conflict of interest, campaign finance, and lobbying laws.

Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board - The board addresses campaign finance, lobbying, and ethics in government and includes searchable databases.

Additional links to ethics information are found on the Legislative Library's Politics and Elections Links to the World page.

Additional Library Resources:

For historical information, check the following codes in the Newspaper Clipping File and the Vertical File:
E62 (Ethics); P182.5 (Public employees-ethics); L60.44 (Legislatures-members-ethics); E16.10A (Elections-finance); L98 (Lobbying); E16.12A (Elections-fraudulent practices); C82 (Conflict of interest); and P84.40 (Political patronage); M68-Campaign Finance & Ethical Practices Board (prior to 1998, see M68-Ethical Practices Board).

For additional reports at the Legislative Reference Library, use these Library catalog searches:
Legislative Ethics; Legislators - Minnesota - Discipline; Political Ethics.

Other resources:
The Library has compiled notebooks of articles relating to specific ethics and misconduct cases in the Minnesota Legislature. Ask a librarian for the location.

Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, 645 State Office Building, Saint Paul, MN  55155