Despite accusations, Council candidate Lisa Bender already resigned her job

A Hennepin County Library Board member and Meg Tuthill volunteer on Monday called for the resignation of Lisa Bender from her state of Minnesota job, raising questions about whether the City Council candidate is breaking federal campaign laws.

But Bender has already quit her job, according to a letter from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, and she provided documents to the Southwest Journal showing she made early efforts to follow the Hatch Act, which prevents people who hold federally funded positions from running for office.  

Gary Thaden, a Lowry Hill East resident and appointed member of the Library Board, sent an e-mail to several reporters on Monday saying he called Bender’s phone number at her office at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, where she worked as a safe routes to school coordinator. Bender’s voicemail said she was on a leave of absence until May 1 and she is still listed as an employee on the DOT website.

“After watching this race, I am wondering why no one has called for her resignation, citing the Hatch Act and that she shouldn’t be involved in partisan politics or not involved in the race period,” Thaden wrote.

Bender resigned on Feb. 8 according to documents and her supervisor. Because she resigned while she was on an unpaid leave of absence, she wasn’t able to change her voicemail, she said.

Bender said she was “disappointed” that Thaden didn’t give her a chance to explain herself before sending the e-mail.

“Anyone certainly could have called me directly with any questions,” Bender said.  “It’s important to know I was very proactive in this, even before I decided to run. I wanted to make sure that I was complying with the law, and also not doing anything that would harm my program, which I care very deeply about.”

Thaden has been active in Tuthill’s campaign since she first ran in 2009.  Thaden registered her campaign’s website and has been a volunteer since, although he is not paid by the campaign and has no official position, said Tuthill campaign manager Jesse Winkler.

E-mail records provided by Bender show that she started requesting an opinion about any ethics issues before she filed paperwork to run for office.

The documents also show that:

Bender, before she ran, e-mailed a MNDOT attorney to see if she would be breaking campaign laws by running for City Council. The attorney, Nandana Perera, wrote to Bender on Dec. 6 that while it would not be an issue with MNDoT, she could not conclusively determine if the federal Hatch Act applies to Bender.

On Dec. 18, a week after Bender declared she was running for City Council, she sent a letter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel asking if she could keep her job – a position that is fully funded through a federal grant.

In early January, while awaiting word from the Special Counsel, Bender took a leave of absence, surrendering her salary and benefits.

On Jan. 28, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel sent Bender a letter telling he that her candidacy “is in violation of the Hatch Act.” Hatch Act Unit Attorney Nadia Pluta wrote that Bender would have to either stop running for office or quit her job. 

As long as Bender did one of those two things by Feb. 11, she would not be disciplined, Pluta wrote.

On Feb. 8, Bender resigned from her position. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel confirmed this resignation in a letter to Bender on Feb. 14 and said her file was closed.   

“I spent a lot of time proactively trying to find an answer to this question, about how to comply with the law,” Bender said.

There appeared to be some confusion about recent changes made to the Hatch Act that took affect in 2012, documents show.

Thaden, when told that Bender resigned a month ago, didn’t back down from his criticism of Bender.  

“Having the ability to come back to the state after May 1st, having voice mail with the state under the phone number for Safe Routes Division and still being listed on the state web site gives me the impression that Lisa Bender is still employed at MnDOT and is involved in a federal program,” Thaden wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “It is disappointing that the (Special) Counsel’s office has closed the file when there is still questions about her involvement.”

Bender’s phone number no longer has a voicemail at the DOT. Her supervisor, Tim Mitchell, said Bender never returned to the office after she took her leave of absense in January, so she never had a chance to change the away message. 

Winkler said Thaden is a private citizen and has the right to question Bender. He said that Ward 10 residents could be misled by Bender’s voicemail.

 “People in the 10th Ward are very active,” Winkler said. “If they get wind of it and they do call, it’s very misleading if they call that voicemail, where it states that she is on a leave of absence.”

Bender is one of three candidates challenging Tuthill, an incumbent, for the Ward 10 DFL endorsement. The Ward 10 DFL convention is scheduled for April 27.

Ward 10 includes the neighborhoods, of Whittier, Lowry Hill East, CARAG, ECCO and the northern half of East Harriet.