What we don’t know can’t hurt him: Tim Pawlenty’s adventures in closed government


Who can blame TP for stinting on public information? It’s not like his administration has nothing to hide

Be sure to check out Pat Doyle and Mark Brunswick’s Sunday Strib feature on Tim Pawlenty’s minimalist approach to government record-keeping (emphasis added):

“Pawlenty, after more than five years as governor, has not filed any records with state archives. He has also been less willing to preserve documents than his predecessor, Jesse Ventura, who despite a reputation for being thin-skinned, saved even unflattering memos and e-mails for future public access. Pawlenty’s administration has cited a 40-year-old Minnesota Supreme Court decision to justify retaining only records of final decisions — not the e-mails or paperwork that cast light on how decisions were made.”

So the Pawlenty administration is preserving none of its deliberations, only records of final decisions. The final decisions of government usually enter the public record by other means, of course, so this is in effect a zero-information game. As the Strib story goes on to point out, Pawlenty’s definition of records that need preserving is so narrow that it would have enabled the destruction of countless emails pertaining to the 35W bridge collapse if the attorney general’s office had not issued a preemptive decree that they must be retained in light of litigation over the disaster.

Pawlenty’s policy aligns with the larger obstructionist ethos of Bush-era Republicanism from Dick Cheney’s year-one energy policy deliberations on down–that open government is for those who lack the guts and stamina to stonewall around the clock.

But emulating his big brothers in Washington is hardly TP’s lone incentive to keep prying eyes out of his gubernatorial business. We in Minnesota are not accustomed to thinking of Pawlenty’s five years and change in the governor’s office as a time of scandal in state government, but that’s more a testament to the kid-gloves treatment that Pawlenty has gotten from Minnesota media than a reflection of reality. With the conservative political editors at the Star Tribune setting the tone, stories critical of the Pawlenty administration have generally come and gone with breathtaking speed, the lone exception being the 35W bridge disaster. And Pawlenty never really took much heat; it was reserved for Carol Molnau, his lieutenant governor and expertise-free DOT commissioner.

Yet there have been at least four episodes during Pawlenty’s tenure when department heads from his administration made news through apparent political manipulation of their departments’ mandates:

MPCA: Sheryl Corrigan, a revolving-door appointee who worked at 3M prior to being appointed commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, resigned under fire in June 2006 after allegedly stonewalling department inquiries into a class of chemicals manufactured by 3M, and prompting a lawsuit by an MPCA whistleblower. More: A summary from our own Tom Elko; former City Pages staffer Mike Mosedale on MPCA scientist Fardin Oliaei’s lawsuit and Corrigan’s resignation.

MDH: Dianne Mandernach, Pawlenty’s Department of Health commissioner, was forced to resign last August after it was revealed that she had suppressed a cancer study pertaining to Iron Range miners for more than a year. To add insult, as Tom Scheck of MPR reported in December, Mandernach also tipped off a prominent mining company a week before the information was finally made public. The story disappeared from radar fairly quickly, coming as it did just weeks after the bridge collapse.

MDE: Cheri Pierson Yecke is but a distant, weird memory to many of us now; it’s been more than four years since Pawlenty’s first Department of Education commissioner was deposed by the Legislature’s refusal to confirm her appointment. Yecke made herself a polarizing figure by pushing a hard Bush administration/religious right agenda on two issues. She embraced the unfunded, draconian mandates of No Child Left Behind with utter zeal at a time when even Republican state governments around the country were beginning to resist them. And, more memorably, this tireless champion of creationism shot the moon on a package of academic standards for teaching social studies that turned back the clock 50 years or so. More about the specifics from Britt Robson and the Organization of American Historians.

MnDOT: Let’s leave aside the fraught and ultimately imponderable matter of whether the Pawlenty Department of Transportation’s political management of state budgets, the DOT, and 35W bridge inspections and repairs played a role in the bridge’s catastrophic failure. The real extent of MnDOT’s politicizing emerged from post-collapse press and government scrutiny into the agency’s performance in general. Under Pawlenty’s lieutenant governor, MnDOT mismanaged not only budgets and deadlines (the Wakota Bridge is the most famous instance) but personnel (the poster child was missing emergency preparedness director Sonia Pitt) and government information (bunkering down in the midst of the bridge inquiry). In sum, the overriding implication is that many of MnDOT’s derelictions stemmed from the combination of underfunding and a politically compromised commissioner who was unwilling, publicly or privately, to challenge the dire funding troubles that Pawlenty’s no-new-taxes mandate imposed on the state’s transportation system. (Cronyism and incompetence obviously played a role as well: Witness the more than $60 million in available federal bridge funds that MnDOT left on the table from 2003-07.

Is it any wonder the governor chose to leave no trace of how episodes like these played out internally? It’s been evident from the time that Pawlenty moved out of the Legislature and into the statewide spotlight that his ambitions did not stop at the door of the governor’s office, or at the state line; he was briefly in the US Senate race back in 2002, after all. And clearly Pawlenty has done his best to make the public record of his tenure as unedifying as possible to anyone who may come poking around in the future.