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Committee probes lawmaker's link to YouTube channel

Senate Republicans brought ethics complaints against DFL Sen. Omar Fateh of Minneapolis

ST PAUL, Minn. — A Minnesota Senate panel Wednesday commenced hearings on GOP ethics complaints against a DFL senator from Minneapolis.

A group of Republican senators have formally accused Sen. Omar Fateh of violating the Senate's ethics rules, specifically of having a conflict of interest when it comes to the Somali TV YouTube channel.

The Senate Rules Subcommittee on Ethics, composed of two Republicans and two Democrats, began what's known as a probable cause hearing designed to determine if there's enough evidence to launch a formal investigation.

Their first complaint alleges that Sen. Fateh received free advertising on Somali TV during his 2020 campaign and subsequently introduced a bill seeking to provide $500,000 in cultural grant money for the channel.

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Sen. Mark Koran of North Branch presented the case Wednesday, sitting at the same witness table as Sen. Fateh and his attorney Kristen Hendrick.  Koran asserted that, until very recently, there was nothing in Fateh's 2020 campaign finance reports indicating he had paid for political advertising on Somali TV.

"Somali TV Minnesota, the YouTube TV channel, has several campaign-related videos featuring Senator Fateh both in English and the Somali languages," Sen. Koran told the committee.

"Our campaign finance laws are very clear. It's a pretty large expense to say I forgot a thousand dollars payment."

Fateh and his lawyer Kristin Hendrick disputed that contention, sharing a notarized affidavit from Sayid Salah, the president of Somali TV, saying that Fateh paid $1,000 for the ads that ran on that YouTube channel. Salah asserted Fateh has no financial interest in Somali TV and there was never a quid-pro-quo arrangement involved.

Hendrick told the committee Fateh, a freshman member, introduced the bill that would've benefited Somali TV after consulting more experienced members of the Senate on how best to serve his constituents in south Minneapolis.

"The evidence showed he paid for campaign advertisement with Somali TV," Hendrick explained.

"Furthermore, there's no connection between that advertisement and his later offering of the appropriations bill."

Hendrick also presented a printout of Cash App mobile payment receipts paid to Somali TV.  She said Fateh accidentally paid out of his own funds instead of campaign funds, but that has been straightened out.

Sen. Koran, on rebuttal, said the Cash App receipts aren't specific enough to prove anything.  He noted that most media outlets provide invoices that are used as documents in campaign finance reports.

Fateh told the panel that Somali TV plays the role of an online community bulletin board for the local Somali community, and that campaign videos are often played on that channel free of charge as news content rather than as advertising.  He said Somali TV will charge a production fee for video produced by the staff.

The ethics panel didn't come to any conclusions Wednesday but will resume the hearing June 15.  They'll also take up a second complaint, filed by the same seven Republican senators.

They claim that Fateh didn't do enough to uncover an alleged absentee ballot fraud scheme carried out on behalf of his 2020 campaign, or condemn it once it came to light.

A federal jury in May convicted Fateh's brother-in-law Muse Mohamud Mohamed of lying to a federal grand jury about three absentee ballots he submitted, acting as an agent for three other voters. 

Minnesota election law allows voters to serve as an agent for up to three absentee voters, delivering their ballots to the mail or a ballot collection site. But during the trial the three voters testified they didn't know Mohamud Mohamed and never gave him permission to deliver ballots on their behalf.

The underlying absentee ballot scheme is still under investigation, but the US Attorney pursued the perjury case against Mohamud Mohamed based on what he told the grand jury investigating the ballots.

In 2020, Fateh challenged incumbent Democrat Jeffrey Hayden in the DFL endorsement battle in Senate District 62. Fateh won the DFL endorsement in the district convention and then defeated Hayden in the August primary. He went on to capture the seat in the heavily Democratic district.

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