Ex-DOC deputy chief says she's accused of lobbying on state time

Former state Corrections Department deputy commissioner Sarah Walker, who resigned last week, says she's under investigation for using her state job for personal lobbying on the taxpayers' dime.

Corrections officials have only confirmed that multiple complaints have been filed against Walker. In a twist, Walker is doing the most talking about the investigation against her.

Among the allegations that Walker is refuting: that she used her state position to help her husband's nonprofit, the Veterans Defense Fund. Walker says she severed ties with her lobbying clients earlier this year and is now accusing a state lawmaker of being behind one of the complaints against her.

"After accepting my appointment to the DOC, I transferred all of my lobbying clients to other registered lobbyists and consciously avoided conduct that would give even an appearance of impropriety in this context," Walker said in a more than two-page statement to FOX 9. "My decision to resign from the Department of Corrections is unrelated to the complaint."

State Rep. Marion O'Neill has filed a data request for access to the investigative documents and Walker's text messages and emails over her six months at DOC. Agency officials have not said when they will release the documents.

Walker accused state Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul and chairman of the powerful House Judiciary committee, of lodging one of the complaints. Lesch has a pattern of launching "underhanded attacks" on women, Walker said.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Lesch denied the allegations.

O'Neill said Walker was displaying "bizarre behavior" by going after Lesch and bringing up scenarios that DOC officials have not yet discussed.

"She's refuting things that haven't even been publicly brought to light," said O'Neill, R-Maple Lake. "I don't know what's happening. It's very, very bizarre."

The Veterans Defense Project, the group run by Walker's husband, didn't have much to show for its lobbying efforts in 2019.

In 2017, with Walker as its lobbyist, the group got a $500,000 state grant from lawmakers. But when Brock Hunter -- the VDP's leader and Walker's husband -- sought $800,000 from the state Legislature this year, lawmakers denied him.

Lesch's committee took the unusual step of having three hearings on the VDP proposal. At the March 14 hearing, Hunter was unable to say how many veterans the group had successfully steered toward veterans courts, its stated objective.

Lesch said he had concerns that the Veterans Defense Project had not released more of its financial information, though his committee ultimately signed off on the measure.

The proposal died in House-Senate budget negotiations, Lesch said.

Walker terminated her lobbying work with the Veterans Defense Fund in February, according to state Campaign Finance Board records

Records from 2017 and 2018 indicate that she was not paid more than $500 in either year for her lobbying work on behalf of the VDP. Walker reported spending no money on lobbying for the group.

Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday that the Walker matter was an "ongoing investigation" within DOC and he couldn't say much – even though Walker had divulged considerable information.

"We're just waiting to see what comes out of that, our intention though is to always reassure Minnesotans, corrections is functioning, they're delivering on what they need to do," Walz said.