Dayton’s staff took care with details of Sieben exit

Former Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben. Photo courtesy of DEED.

Internal documents released Thursday show that Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration planned in great detail how word would get out that Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben was resigning her post last April.

Sieben’s departure got renewed attention this week after an APM Reports story revealed she was one of three Dayton ex-commissioners to receive sizable severance payments upon their resignation. Republican lawmakers questioned whether the governor had the authority to give the payouts and demanded details about the circumstances. Dayton stood by the decision to award roughly $80,000 in combined severance but declined to discuss whether  he asked Sieben or the others to go.

Documents released in response to an open-records request highlight the “comprehensive communications and outreach plan” put in place ahead of Sieben’s formal resignation. It includes an hour-by-hour “tick tock” for delivering the news — first to key legislators and outside stakeholders, then to agency staff and finally the public via a news release. (The schedule didn’t end up holding because some news outlets, including MPR News,  got wind before the press release was sent.)

The rundown includes designation of which administration officials would personally convey the news to whom. For instance, Chief of Staff Jaime Tincher was tasked with making calls to the four legislative caucus leaders and it was suggested Lt. Gov. Tina Smith pass word to Minnesota business group leaders. Incoming Commissioner Shawntera Hardy had her own list of calls, including to lawmakers who would oversee her confirmation, to minority groups and to some influential business executives.

The materials also contained a multi-phased plan for handling the news, such as ways to tout Minnesota’s improving economy and lists of “anticipated press questions” Sieben or her replacement could face. Some were routine as highlighting Sieben’s accomplishments during her five years involved. But there was also one that still hasn’t been fully answered: “Was this your decision or the Governor’s?”

In a written statement, Sieben told APM Reports that she resigned voluntarily after consulting with Dayton and Tincher.

The public records request focused on any materials related to Sieben’s departure including email messages, draft press releases and handwritten and digital notes.

In paying severance, Dayton relied on a little-known law that his aides insisted granted him power to authorize the settlements.

“I made a decision of what I though was appropriate in those three circumstances,” Dayton told reporters Tuesday after a speech, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. Dayton said he “can’t comment legally and I wouldn’t comment morally” on what led up to their resignations.

Republican legislators pounced on the disclosure and described the severance as taxpayer-funded rewards to highly paid and politically connected advisers. Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, is among those who raised doubts about the legality.

“Anyone who is asked to serve as a commissioner for example in a state government role, they understand what they are getting into. They know what the pay is before they start. They also know that state government is not like the private sector and is not a profit-making enterprise. People who do it do it because they have an interest in serving,” Hann said. “So I don’t agree with the governor that this is an economic question that we have to reward people the same way the private sector does.”

Top Democrats haven’t commented on the severance arrangement. The batch of materials released Thursday show that a Senate Democratic press aide contacted Dayton’s staff to ask how they were responding to reporter questions on the matter. The same aide later told APM Reports that Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and Senate State Departments and Veterans Budget Division Chair Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, were not available for interviews.

APM Reports investigative correspondent Tom Scheck contributed to this report.