Minnetrista certainly has had its share of controversy over the years but “Minnetristagate” surpasses them all. The political committee “Our Minnetrista” and their candidates violated multiple campaign finance laws in order to influence the 2014 and 2018 Minnetrista city council elections. The financial scheme concocted by the group bypassing Minnesota’s Fair Campaign Practices Act was concealed from the public and according to the final order by the Office of Administrative Hearing’s (OAH) three judge panel:
“…corrupted the political process, and created an unfair advantage for the candidates it supported…”
“Our Minnetrista” and its candidates accepted multiple contributions far exceeding statutory limits and then divided them up among their candidates, only reporting a fraction of the actual check amounts on each candidate’s disclosure reports. They accepted illegal corporate contributions and then reported them as coming from individuals. They had the Westonka School District invoiced for their campaign mailings*, and in the courtroom “I don’t know” was the most frequently heard phrase from Respondents that included Minnetrista Mayor Lisa Whalen, Councilmembers Pam Mortenson and John Tschumperlin, past Councilmember Patricia Thoele, and Our Minnetrista leaders David Kolb and Karen Danielson.
Erick Kaardal, Attorney for Complainant, Shannon Bruce, remarked in his opening statement “How candidates operate in the campaign environment with respect to law reflects on how our public officials act when they are in office. And so, this is a very important case regarding how our campaigns for public officials are going to be operated consistent with the law or in violation of the law.”
Respondents defended their scheme to the very end claiming to have researched its financial structure with the city clerk, Secretary of State’s office and the Campaign Finance Board. Interestingly they didn’t have a single witness from those offices willing to testify on their behalf, provided no evidence such contacts ever occurred and couldn’t remember most of the names of the persons with whom they had allegedly spoken.
A highlight from the two day trial came from Mayor Lisa Whalen who, after being shown two checks, each for $1,000 from the same individual (contribution limit is $600) displaying clear, easily recognizable signatures on each check, feigned she didn’t know who made the contribution because she couldn’t make out the signature. Here are the exhibits she was shown:
And her testimony about the checks above:
Another exchange between Complainant attorney Erick Kaardal, (Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson, P.A.) and Lisa Whalen:
Campaigning is hard work and an unfair advantage is created when a rogue political committee does all the work instead of a candidate: organizing fundraisers, choosing vendors for printing/signs/mailings, writing content for literature, putting up a website, doing the bookkeeping and filing campaign disclosure reports, distributing flyers, door-knocking, etc… At some point it becomes the political committee and not the candidate that is being elected.
The 2014 Mayoral race was won by less than 200 votes. Without the unfair advantage of Our Minnetrista’s illegal activity it’s reasonable to conclude that Whalen’s opposition in that race, Mark Vanderlinde, would’ve won the mayoral election by a wide margin. It’s also likely, had there been a level field, the 2018 independent candidate, Elroy Balgaard, would’ve defeated one of the Our Minnetrista candidates.
We can’t change the past but we can change the future. Here are some issues to address with the MN state legislature to ensure the integrity of local elections going forward:
- Policing of campaign finance violations at the local level in MN is nonexistent. Candidates for city elections and school boards file disclosures with the very administrative offices they are tasked with overseeing. This is a reason so many of these violations are never reported. Just like state and federal elections, local elections need oversight from a body with investigative and enforcement authority.
- Organized groups operating illegally are discouraging qualified candidates from running for public office in MN. Opposition candidates face well-funded attacks designed to destroy them with innuendo and fabricated allegations. These unfounded attacks serve to keep opponents from considering public office.
- Pay-to-play is alive and well in local MN politics. Scrutiny and investigation of contribution sources is required to prevent this.
- Grass roots candidates can’t compete with the vast financial resources of rogue political committees. Crony capitalism will prevail until these groups are shut down.
- Private citizens don’t have the resources to litigate these violations. Corruption flourishes without enforcement. We need oversight and enforcement of campaign finance laws at the local level in MN.
The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) is a civil court and can only issue fines up to $5,000 for campaign finance violations. A total of $5,000 was fined in this case as follows:
- $2,000 fine for Our Minnetrista committee (David Kolb & Karen Danielson)
- $1,200 fine for Councilmember Pam Mortenson
- $600 fine each for Mayor Lisa Whalen, Councilmember John Tschumperlin and past Councilmember Patricia Thoele.
- All Respondents are also required to file accurate campaign finance reports with the city of Minnetrista and OAH by August 1, 2019.
*Some trial exhibits alleging criminal violations (invoicing the school district, fraudulent campaign reports filed with the Campaign Finance Board, donations from individuals involved in matters before the city) were not admitted to the record in this proceeding. The OAH is a civil, not a criminal court. The possibility of pursuing criminal violations is being evaluated. Stay tuned.