Sep. 1—While a Minnesota state lawmaker recovers after cutting off three fingers in a power saw mishap, some well-meaning donations to help her with child care will likely have to be returned, lest they violate a ban on public officials receiving gifts from lobbyists.
On Aug. 22, Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, lost control of a power saw and cut off three fingers on her left hand, according to a statement she released Tuesday. She was airlifted by helicopter, which landed on Highway 11 near Longville, and flew her to North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale. There, doctors were able to re-attach her middle finger, but not her ring finger and pinky.
"This was an incredibly scary accident and a life changing event," said Koegel, who was first elected to the House in 2016. "However, thanks to the quick thinking and care of my loved ones and our amazing first responders, this accident wasn't any worse than it was. I am deeply grateful for the compassionate care I received and the outpouring of love and support from so many across Minnesota. Thank you all for your kindness and generosity which will ensure my daughter, Clara, will receive the childcare she needs while I focus on my recovery."
Soon after, a GoFundMe page was established online to raise money to "help the family with hiring a mommy's helper/child care, food and necessities for the family while Erin recovers from this accident." While the Legislature is not in session, Koegel cares for her 2-year-old daughter "and her husband needs to return to work to support the family," the site explains.
The cause was amplified by House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, who tweeted out a call for donations. They flowed in. As of Tuesday afternoon, the site listed more than $8,300 in donations, exceeding the stated goal of $5,000.
What raised a few eyebrows among those knowledgeable of state politics was that a number of lobbyists' names could be seen on the donor list.
That would appear to be a violation of a state law that prohibits state lawmakers and other public officials and employees from accepting most gifts worth more than $5 from lobbyists. There are exceptions, but none appear to apply for Koegel's situation.
In an interview Tuesday, Hortman said she has asked a House staffer to seek a formal opinion from the state Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board, but she said she expects the donations from lobbyists will most likely have to be returned — and a fellow lawmaker who is managing the campaign was preparing to begin that process.
"It's a very common thing that people send us checks that we have to return," Hortman said, noting that the state "gift ban" is often invoked when foreign delegations or corporations send goodwill or holiday gifts. "It's part of our life and our world," she said.
At least one lobbyist Tuesday made a point to publicly announce that he had become aware that his $125 donation couldn't stand.
"As a lobbyist, I'm prohibited from giving gifts to legislators. (Rightfully so)," tweeted Rob Doar, legislative director of the Gun Owners Caucus, a pro-gun rights group that is active at the Capitol. "Instead, I'll donate to a local foodshelf that serves our community. Putting it out now incase someone tries to spin it. Nothing unscrupulous, was just trying to help a neighbor in need."
Hortman said that even though she suspected that helping Koegel's cause would likely lead to some awkwardness for reasons like the gift ban, she went ahead anyway in the spirit of helping a colleague — an idea that runs counter to the perception that, with today's bitter partisan divides, congeniality has become a casualty at the Capitol.
"It was more 'please help my co-worker,' she said. "Let's just be human beings and damn the torpedoes."