Oops: Watchdog finds mistaken payment for lawmaker’s expenses

MONEY MAN: Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, makes decisions on hundreds of millions in spending for conservation and cultural projects funded under the 2008 Legacy Amendment passed by voters.

By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, decides on hundreds of millions in spending for conservation and cultural projects funded under the 2008 Legacy Amendment.

Urdahl Is a former chairman and now leading Republican on the Minnesota House Legacy Committee. A history buff who authors more than legislation, Urdahl is in demand as a speaker at libraries and museums with programs and projects underwritten by Legacy funding.

But from the outset of his tenure on the influential committee, the six-term legislator says he set a hard rule — no Legacy money for personal speaking engagements.

“I don’t accept any Legacy money when I speak. It’s a standing policy that I’ve had since I started speaking,” Urdahl said in response to a Watchdog inquiry. “I do recognize the conflict of interest.”

A Watchdog Minnesota Bureau review, however, found a mistaken payment.

According to the report, $1,707 of the $2,346 spent on Urdahl’s appearances at six Lake Agassiz Regional Library branches March 22-23 came from the Legacy amendment’s Arts and Cultural Fund — $517 was used for Urdahl’s mileage and hotel expenses, according to LARL staff. The legislator’s $200 honorarium came out of a separate library budget.

Urdahl — until told by Watchdog Minnesota Bureau — said he was unaware the payments were listed on a state website that keeps tabs on Legacy spending. He said he told Lake Agassiz Regional Library staff he would not accept any money paid out of Legacy Funds, and that the library made an accounting mistake.

“They offered me 600 bucks and I said I can’t take Legacy money from you,” said Urdahl. “I said if you can find another source of money that’s not Legacy, I can do that. I said I don’t care about the amount. I don’t do this for the money and they gave me $200, which they told me was not Legacy money. That’s all I know.”

After reviewing the events’ budget in response to a Watchdog inquiry, the director of the Lake Agassiz Regional Library said she mistakenly dipped into Legacy funds to pay for most of the costs.

“It was Mr. Urdahl’s understanding that his tour would be funded by the Lake Agassiz Regional Library’s operating budget, not by Legacy funding,” Liz Lynch, director for the Lake Agassiz Regional Library, said in an email. “Now that this situation has been brought to my attention, I have reviewed our Legacy report for this time period with LARL’s finance manager and found that I inadvertently used Legacy funds for the program.”

See the Legacy Fund spending report that led to Watchdog MN Bureau inquiry

The central Minnesota legislator typically speaks on topics titled “Who Really Killed Lincoln?” and “The Dakota Uprising,” usually at events that sometimes double as book signings. A retired teacher, he wants his 90-minute talks around the state to further understanding of the 1860s Dakota War that serves as the context for his Minnesota-based historical novels.

Some of Urdahl’s gigs, however, are clearly part of Legacy Amendment funded series with multiple authors, such as an October 2013 talk at the New Brighton Library. An online registration form for the event — “Take Us Out to the Ballgame: Dean Urdahl and the Minnesota Twins” — said “this program is funded with money from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.” The registration form also listed Urdahl’s legislative office phone and email address as points of contact. The lawmaker said he received $100 for expenses, but no Legacy funding related to that appearance.

A Minnesota Department of Education official who tracks Legacy funding found no record of Legacy funding associated with Urdahl’s appearances, other than the LARL appearances last year.

“That’s the only one that has Legacy funds associated with it, according to my records,” said Jennifer Verbrugge, library partnership program coordinator for MDE.

The original Legacy fund report and Urdahl’s name have been removed from the state website. LARL staff, meanwhile, has corrected the accounting mistake.

“To correct this situation we have transferred funds from our Adult Programming budget to cover all costs associated with it,” said Lynch, the LARL director. “I am sending a revised report to the Department of Education regarding LARL’s 2013 Legacy expenditures. The revised report removes Mr. Urdahl’s program from the Legislative Coordinating Commission website.”

The LARL website suggests users contact their legislators “to support your library and help keep great programs like these coming to your community!”

As the title of the series that led to the funding confusion states, “The Beat Goes On” for Urdahl in St. Paul.

“It’s just frustrating that when you try to do the right thing, it still can get screwed up,” he said.

Contact Tom Steward at tsteward@watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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