The head of a Minnesota state office that helps direct how lottery proceeds are spent for special environmental and natural resources projects was fired last week, prompting questions about the legality of the firing and accusations that House Republicans orchestrated it for political purposes.
Susan Thornton, director of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources since 2008, was called into House Speaker Kurt Zellers' office and told she was being terminated Jan. 2 so the commission could go in a different direction, according to several commission members and DFL legislators.
Neither Thornton nor Zellers could be reached for comment Tuesday.
The commissioners and some DFL legislators said they were shocked to hear of the firing. They said the commission, which hired Thornton, had expressed no concerns about her work performance and retains authority over that position.
"If the commission is the only entity that can hire her, it's the only entity that can fire her," said Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, a legislative member of the commission.
Another commission member, Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said the director of the Legislative Coordinating Commission, which supervises legislative commissions and agencies, fired her. But he said the order would have had to come from Zellers.
"I was blindsided by this," said Nancy Gibson, citizen co-chair of the commission. "As co-chair, you would think I at least would be privy to some
Using money from a trust fund supported by state lottery proceeds, the LCCMR recommends environmental and natural resources projects to the Legislature each year. The most recent round of projects totaled almost $51 million for two years.
Established in 1963, the commission used to be made up entirely of legislators, but it was revamped in 2006 to include citizen members. Now, the 17-member commission consists of five state senators, five state representatives and seven citizens -- five appointed by the governor, one by the Senate, and one by the House.
Typically, the Legislature goes along with commission recommendations, which had been developed with a relative lack of infighting until last session. Then, McNamara and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, led a controversial effort to replace several recommendations with ones they preferred.
"The LCCMR has always been nonpartisan," said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, a former commission member. "The decisions have been bipartisan. And now the speaker is making it into a partisan position."
Higgins, Wagenius, Gibson and others were critical of the way the matter was handled.
"This is not open," Gibson said. "This is not transparent."
Distributed by MCT Information Services