Campaign finance laws serve to regulate the amount of donations flowing to political candidates for office from groups and individuals. Media attention usually focuses on the horse race for contributions between candidates for higher office.
But campaign finance limits also apply to candidates running for city council and mayor in local elections. Yet you’d never know it from numerous violations recently uncovered in the Twin Cities suburb of Minnetrista, where three of the five current city council members were found to have violated Minnesota’s Fair Campaign Practices Act.
A panel of Office of Administrative Law judges has ruled against the city’s mayor, two city councilors, a former city councilor and a shadowy political committee known as Our Minnetrista for campaign finance violations in either the 2014 and/or 2018 municipal elections. Their 21-page ruling includes this nugget:
Our Minnestrista’s failure to file campaign financial reports in 2018 was ill-advised, corrupted the political process, and created an unfair advantage for the candidates it supported for two elective offices. A $2,000 penalty is appropriate.
The Panel concludes that the candidates’ violation of the contribution limits was negligent and difficult to correct or counter.
The panel’s findings vindicate Minnetrista City Councilor Shannon Bruce, who first exposed the apparent violations and then vetted the verdict on her watchdog Minnetrista Governance Blog.
“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.”
Moreover, Bruce believes the campaign and outcome of the election was not only undermined but likely determined by skirting the rules.
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.
The OAH panel levied the maximum total amount of fines allowed in this case–$5,000. But Bruce believes much more needs to be done to uncover and prevent more widespread violations of campaign violations in local elections statewide.
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.