State Senator Omar Fateh, left, observes State Senator Mark Koran, right, read an ethics complaint against him on June 8, 2022. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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State Senator Omar Fateh said his campaign did not receive free advertising or an endorsement from a Somali media outlet that stood to receive money from a bill he authored.

Omar, a Democrat who represents south Minneapolis, defended himself Wednesday before a Senate subcommittee that will decide at a later date whether an ethics complaint filed against him has enough merit to warrant further investigation.

Seven Republican state senators filed the complaint against Omar last month. They alleged that he violated the Senate’s ethics rules by allegedly receiving free advertising from Somali TV Minnesota and not disclosing it, and then writing legislation in April 2021 to appropriate $500,000 to them over two years. The bill never received a hearing.

Omar showed the subcommittee screenshots of two receipts totaling $1,000 that he paid to Somali TV Minnesota in the summer of 2020. He also cited campaign advertisements from other political candidates that aired on Somali TV Minnesota, which broadcasts on YouTube. He said the ads were similar to his. 

“These are not endorsements,” said Omar, who was accompanied by an attorney. “It’s not Somali TV telling folks to go vote for them; it is just [the candidates] using their platform.” 

Wednesday’s hearing marked the first time Omar has responded publicly to allegations in the ethics complaint. He testified under oath, and declined to speak further with reporters, including Sahan Journal, after the hearing.

The Republicans’ complaint also alleges that Omar hasn’t “addressed his involvement in the unauthorized delivery” of absentee ballots by a campaign volunteer during the 2020 election. Omar beat incumbent Jeff Hayden that year.

A federal jury last month convicted that campaign volunteer, Muse Mohamed, of perjury for lying to a grand jury about how he received the three ballots, which he submitted to the Minneapolis election center. No one has been charged with voter fraud in that investigation.

Muse, who is also Omar’s brother-in-law, told a grand jury that he received absentee ballots from the three voters themselves. Two of the voters testified at his trial that they had never met Muse and had not authorized him to handle their ballots. 

The Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct on Wednesday only addressed the Somali TV Minnesota issue. The subcommittee didn’t make any decisions on the complaint, and plans to convene  next Wednesday for another hearing on the matter. 

Senator Mark Koran, R-North Branch, presented the complaint to the hearing. 

“Senator Fateh’s conduct violates accepted norms of Senate behavior, betrays the public trust, and brings the Senate into dishonor and disrepute,” Koran said, reading from the complaint. 

Kirsten Hendrick, center, attorney for Senator Omar Fateh, left, holds a copy of the campaign purchase through CashApp. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Omar’s attorney, Kirsten Hendrick, told the subcommittee that the complaint “stemmed primarily from news articles based on assumptions.” 

“Printing information doesn’t make it fact,” she said. 

The subcommittee spent more than two hours hearing from Koran and Omar. The senators and Omar repeatedly debated whether screenshots of his payments to Somali TV Minnesota using the mobile payment service, CashApp, qualified as proper receipts, and whether they met campaign finance requirements.

Koran argued that the receipts didn’t provide enough explanation for what the payments were for. He criticized Omar for not providing an invoice for the services. Hendrick emphasized throughout the hearing that the CashApp screenshots stated that the payments were for a campaign video. 

Senator Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, emphasized that the receipts don’t specify whether the payments were for production of the video or airing of the video. Senator Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, however, seemed satisfied with the explanation from Omar and Hendrick.

“Clearly it said it was made to Somali TV,” Torres Ray said of the screenshots. “He’s my colleague. I have no reason to believe this is not true.”

Omar said that in the summer of 2020, he paid $1,000 of his personal money to his campaign as an in-kind contribution, and that his campaign then paid $1,000 to Somali TV Minnesota. Hendrick, Omar’s attorney, said he provided required campaign disclosure language to Somali TV Minnesota for his ad, but that the media outlet didn’t include the language when it published the ad. 

Hendrick stated multiple times that the issues the subcommittee discussed “may have something to do with Somali TV” and not Omar. 

Omar acknowledged that he didn’t file the Somali TV Minnesota payments in his campaign finance reports until earlier this week, when he amended his 2020 report.

“We have conceded that that was an error on Senator Fateh’s part,” Hendrick said. “That error has been remedied.”

Kiffmeyer appeared to take issue with this. “A mistake does not absolve guilt or responsibility or consequences,” she said. “No matter what, the senator is responsible for his campaign.”

The subcommittee will  decide at a later date whether the complaints against Omar should be investigated further. If the subcommittee decides they do, it will then open an investigation. The subcommittee can investigate the complaints itself, or hire an outside expert to conduct the investigation.

The subcommittee is made up of four members and is equally split between Republicans and Democrats. A vote divided two against two would reject an investigation. 

If the subcommittee decides to issue punishment or a reprimand, it issues its recommendations to the Senate Rules Committee to execute.

The Senate Rules Committee can meet outside of a legislative session to vote whether to issue punishment for a sitting senator. That can include censure, denial of reimbursements, denial of services like secretaries, stripping the senator’s seniority, stripping the senator’s committee assignment, and stripping them of their leadership roles. Decisions are approved through a majority vote. 

Such punishments are common when the subcommittee makes findings and recommendations, said Peter Wattson, who served as general counsel for the state Senate from 1971 through 2011.

More serious actions, such as expelling a sitting senator, require a two-thirds vote from the full Senate body.

Ethics complaints against sitting senators aren’t frequent, but happened “plenty enough in the 40 years I was there,” Wattson said. 

The last ethics complaint was seven years ago against Senator Hayden, Omar’s predecessor. In that case, the subcommittee decided not to act on a complaint over Hayden’s ties to a nonprofit.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...