St. Paul- The Minnesota Jobs Coalition today called on Rep. Joe Atkins (DFL- 52B) to explain several unanswered questions regarding his role with the non-profit Inver Grove Heights BEST Foundation and his unusual relationship with Inver Grove Heights Community Schools, which was tasked with providing the private sector employee with public benefits otherwise unavailable to Minnesotans.
“Rep. Joe Atkins should explain to Minnesotans why, after years of reporting Atkins’ compensation on its public documents, the foundation chose to hide the fact that he was earning in excess of $850 an hour in salary and benefits for his work raising money from lobbyists and corporations he was tasked with regulating,” said Minnesota Jobs Coalition president and chairman Kevin Magnuson.
The Inver Grove Heights BEST Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity that is independent of the school district according to the IGH BEST and Inver Grove Heights Community Schools website. However, the school district and foundation treated Atkins as an employee of the school district, where he received health insurance, a public pension (PERA), and other public employee benefits.
Despite the foundation having other paid employees, no other employee of the IGH school district or foundation received this treatment. PERA has since made the determination following an investigation that Rep. Atkins is not an employee of the school district and was not in fact eligible to receive public pension benefits for his work for the private foundation.
Rep. Atkins received nearly a quarter million dollars of additional public employee benefits for his work with the private foundation which have yet to be answered for between 2001 and 2015. These payments could have provided enough money for more than 115 scholarships at the average award amount of roughly $1,700 each.
From 2001 to 2008, the foundation reported Rep. Atkins as a compensated employee on its IRS Form 990s. Thereafter, Rep. Atkins continued to receive compensation but was not listed on the Form 990s raising questions as to why his compensation was hidden on publicly available documents as his profile in the legislature grew.
Publicly available Form 990s indicate that Rep. Atkins completed one hour of work per week, on average, since 2010 for his work with the BEST Foundation earning in excess of $850.00 per hour in salary and benefits over the past five years on average.
According to AFL-CIO information, this is 38 times higher than the average Minnesota workers’ hourly wage, 51 times higher than the living wage, more than 90 times higher than the minimum wage and is equivalent to a higher hourly rate than all but 50 Minnesota CEOs in 2014, raising questions about the appropriateness of such an arrangement. Rep. Atkins’ 2014 compensation was equivalent to 28 additional scholarships at the average award amount.
Magnuson called on Atkins to answer the following outstanding questions:
- Does Rep. Atkins believe his average hourly compensation of over $850 is appropriate?
- Does Rep. Atkins believe he was entitled to the more than $200,000 in public benefits as a school district employee to which he otherwise would not have been able to receive for work performed on behalf of a private foundation?
- Why did the foundation stop reporting compensation to Rep. Atkins while continuing to list other employees and board member’s compensation?
MPR: Corporate Contributions & Role on Commerce Committee Raise Questions Over Conflict Of Interest. “In 2002, he won a seat in the Minnesota House, where he rose to chair the House Commerce Committee, which writes laws important to many of the big firms that have donated tens of thousands of dollars to IGH BEST. Although he’s no longer chair, Atkins remains the Commerce panel’s top Democrat as he continues as IGH BEST’s executive director. He says the job initially paid $20,000 and now pays $25,000 annually. That’s led to questions about whether his role as corporate regulator is in conflict with his efforts to raise foundation cash from those corporations.” (Tom Scheck, “Critic: Rep. Atkins’ corporate ties at odds with regulatory role,” Minnesota Public Radio, Sept. 24, 2015)
Consumer Advocate Tells MPR: “This Is Essentially Influence Peddling.” “One critic, however, says it’s no coincidence that big corporations are making donations to a small nonprofit. ‘It’s a means of trying to curry favor with the lawmaker,’ said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy group. Holman says it’s not illegal for businesses to give to IGH BEST or for Atkins to raise money for it. He said the practice of what he calls the ‘relationship market’ is fairly common in state legislatures and in Congress. ‘From the business perspective, this is essentially influence peddling,’ Holman said. ‘This is a way to make sure that the lawmaker knows who you are and the lawmaker views you favorably.’” (Tom Scheck, “Critic: Rep. Atkins’ corporate ties at odds with regulatory role,” Minnesota Public Radio, Sept. 24, 2015)
Pioneer Press: State Asked to Investigate Atkins’s Unusual Compensate Arrangement Involving Foundation And School District. “The Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a Republican supporting campaign organization, is asking the state to investigate Inver Grove Heights Rep. Joe Atkins’ compensation through a school district. Atkins, a DFL House member and Inver Grove Heights BEST Foundation’s director, receives his salary and benefits for the foundation job through the Inver Grove Heights school district, Independent School District 199. ‘In light of this highly unusual financial arrangement over at least 14 years, the Minnesota Jobs Coalition has called for a full and immediate investigation into Rep. Atkins’ employment and compensation arrangement,’ Minnesota Jobs Coalition President Kevin Magnuson said. Atkins said he has no worries about the request for the Minnesota Public Employees Retirement Association to investigate the compensation arrangement.” (Rachel E. Stassen-Berger, “Jobs Coalition questions Rep. Atkins’ salary arrangement,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, December 14, 2015)
Star Tribune: “PERA to Investigate Pension Benefits for Rep. Joe Atkins.” “The Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota (PERA) will investigate the public pension benefits earned by Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, for his work with a private foundation. … ‘To remain tax-qualified as a government plan, we have to ensure that the people who are our members are employees of a government entity – that is one of our requirements,’ said Julie Leppink, who serves as the legal director for both PERA and the Minnesota State Retirement System. Leppink said the first step of the investigation will be to ask the school district to explain the employment relationship between Atkins and the school district. ‘It raises questions when you see the school district has been reimbursed,’ added Leppink.” (Michael Brodkorb, “PERA to investigate pension benefits for Rep. Joe Atkins,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 16, 2015)
Star Tribune: PERA Investigation Determines Atkins Wrongly Received Benefits. “Rep. Joe Atkins’, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, work with a private foundation does not allow him to receive public pension benefits from the Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota (PERA), according to an investigation completed by PERA. … Julie Leppink, the legal director for both PERA and the Minnesota State Retirement System, said PERA determined ‘there was not an employment relationship between Rep. Atkins and the school district that made him eligible for PERA membership.’ Leppink said PERA sent a letter to both Atkins and ISD 199 informing them of PERA’s decision. Atkins will receive a refund check for his contributions to PERA since 2001, said Leppink.” (Michael Brodkorb, “Investigation finds Rep. Atkins not eligible for PERA pension benefits,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 5, 2016)
Star Tribune Investigation Finds Atkins’s Children Received Scholarships From Foundation Ran By Atkins. “State Rep. Joe Atkins is drawing fresh political criticism after revelations that his three children all received college scholarships from the nonprofit education foundation he runs. The Inver Grove Heights DFLer, who has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the BEST Foundation from companies with business before the Legislature, said he has no role in selecting scholarship winners and has no reservations about helping local students get to college.” (J. Patrick Coolican, “Rep. Joe Atkins’ 3 children received scholarships from nonprofit scholarship foundation he runs,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 22, 2016)
The Star Tribune Questions Whether Or Not Atkins’s Daughter Qualified for the Scholarship Given By Her Father’s Foundation. “Most recently, Atkins’ daughter, currently a first-year student at the University of Minnesota, received the $6,000 Praxair Scholarship, sponsored by the industrial gas company and the largest among 124 scholarships awarded by the foundation. Atkins serves as executive director of the foundation, which formed to provide scholarships for students graduating from Simley High School. … The Praxair scholarship stipulates that a student should be planning to major in agriculture, biology, civil engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, environmental engineering or environmental sciences. Atkins’ daughter is at the Carlson School of Business and planning to major in finance or accounting.” (J. Patrick Coolican, “Rep. Joe Atkins’ 3 children received scholarships from nonprofit scholarship foundation he runs,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 22, 2016)