Donations from university regents to lobbying group under increasing scrutiny

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Several members of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents are facing growing criticism for donating to a political action committee that’s acting as an independent lobbyist for the university.

Maroon and Gold Rising is an unaffiliated non-profit group created last year primarily by alumni and former regents who say its mission is to support the university’s requests for funding.

But it also operates a political action committee (PAC) that shares the same name, website and some of the same members.
The Maroon and Gold Rising PAC has boasted about its ability to influence state lawmakers and raise money through political contributions.

Last year, it received a combined $8,500 from Regents Richard Beeson, Janie Mayeron, David McMillan and Board Chair Kendall Powell, according to campaign finance records.

They have not responded to interview requests.

Their donations as well as the PAC’s lobbying efforts are now under increasing scrutiny.

Professor Richard Painter, a well-known expert in legal ethics at the U, says the regents have created potential conflicts of interest by donating to outside political organizations.

"I believe it would be poor judgment to give that money to any PAC," Painter said. "Much less a PAC that is clearly claiming to advance the agenda of the University of Minnesota."

Regent Darrin Rosha said he declined to donate to Maroon and Gold Rising last year because he thought it blurred ethical lines.

"I didn’t think it was a good idea," he said. "We are constantly communicating with legislators and it’s based on the merit…not based on giving money directly to a political campaign."

University President Joan Gabel has also expressed concern that the group could create confusion and be viewed as an extension of the school.

"We need to ensure the needed independence…from the work of this PAC," Gabel wrote in a directive to top administrators in February of last year. "The University does not engage in partisan activities such as donating funds to political campaigns or candidates. This PAC is not an arm of the University and does not set the agenda for, or speak on behalf of the University of Minnesota."

Last week, U administrators took it a step further by demanding Maroon and Gold Rising remove all copyrighted images from its website and add a disclaimer stating it is not affiliated with the university.

No one from Maroon and Gold would agree to an interview. In a statement, the group said, in part, "our sole mission is to independently advocate for the University’s requests of the Minnesota legislature."

But the organization’s ties to the legislature are also raising red flags for Professor Painter, Rosha and a state lawmaker.

A board member of Maroon and Gold Rising’s non-profit arm sits on the Regent Candidate Advisory Council — a committee that recruits and recommends candidates for the Board of Regents.

Rep. Brian Daniels (R-Fairbault) also sits on the council and says he became concerned about Maroon and Gold’s lobbying efforts earlier this year. Daniels said the group asked what he thought about the candidates and then offered him a campaign contribution.

"I was very excited about (recruiting candidates) and then to find out there might be something behind the scenes happening…didn’t smell right," Daniels said.