Little things mean a lot
In campaign finance law, that is
Among the many sadly overlooked bills passed by the legislature and signed by the governor of late is SF661, the campaign finance bill. (The link is to the conference bill that was passed by the House and the Senate and signed by Governor Dayton, according to news reports.) The bill ran some thirty pages plus as introduced and has a lot of things in it, but I will mention only one for now. Well, actually three, but they’re related.
As noted here before, the campaign finance and practices laws in Minnesota are administered by two agencies, the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board and the Office of Administrative Hearings. The new bill makes three changes in the jurisdiction of the CFB.
The legislature gave the CFB the authority to investigate and impose fines for violation of Minn. Stat. §§ 211B.04, 211B.12, and 211B.15. Well, big whoop you say. But the changes are significant.
Sec. 211B.04 is the entirely miserably-named statute on political disclaimers, which are not really disclaimers at all, but are rather affirmations of support for a candidate or cause. This advertisement was paid for by the Foofniak for Pine County Sheriff Committee, that kind of thing. The accuracy of “disclaimers” and where they are required comes up surprisingly often.
Sec. 211B.12 sets forth what are legal expenditures for political purposes. It beggars the imagination to think that an agency with the words “campaign finance” in its name couldn’t tell you whether it was legal to spend your hard-earned campaign dollars on X or Y, or fine you for spending in violation of the statute, but that’s the more or less the case.
Sec. 211B.15 governs, or rather prohibits, corporations from making campaign contributions. This ought to make you think about Common Cause Minnesota v. Republican Party of Minnesota. More about that later.
Ch. 211B cases are currently all under the jurisdiction of the OAH. That often means that a case involving an alleged violation of ch. 10A (which the CFB administers) of the Minnesota Statutes concerning disclosure of contributions or expenses will also result in a case under ch. 211B for the legality of that contribution or expense. A couple of peachy examples have been discussed right here at LeftMN this last year and provide excellent examples of what we’re talking about. We’ll take the little one first.
Ernie Leidiger, a freshman (at the time; he got re-elected) representative from HD47A decided that the speeding ticket he got while heading home from some political meeting or other was really a cost of his service to the district. He got himself reimbursed by his campaign, and the campaign disclosed the ticket as a “transportation” expense on Leidiger’s next annual report. When discovered, a complaint was made at the CFB and the campaign treasurer was fined for the untruthful disclosure in the filed report.
Parenthetically, Leidiger is also the guy who thought it would be a good idea to have Bradlee Dean offer an invocation before a House session, so he has much to answer for.
But even though the CFB was thoroughly familiar with the facts, it couldn’t do anything about the illegal nature of the expenditure itself: paying speeding fines is not a permissible expenditure under § 211B.12. A complaint was filed in the OAH against Leidiger and his treasurer by the Minnesota DFL, and son of a gun, they got fined there, too.
This ought to strike you as a bit of a duplication of effort at state expense. But it gets better. Much better.
I refer, of course, to the Great Shenanigan, almost certainly the greatest (attempted) public hoodwink in Minnesota political party history. People who have made it this far into this story — nearly six hundred words — are certainly familiar with the efforts of the Republican Party of Minnesota and its leadership, or part of it anyway, to bury $600,000 of party debt to its lawyers in a tin can behind party headquarters in St. Paul. It was debt run up, you will recall, for the Emmer recount in late 2010.
The first mistake made by then-chair Tony Sutton and the RPM was to fail to disclose the $600,000 in its 2010 annual report to the CFB in filed January of 2011. Actually that was the second mistake; the first one was blowing 600K on lawyers on a recount stinker of such epic proportions. That, and underestimating just how much much money three law firms could bill in a month. But I digress.
But as these things do, it came a cropper. People asked, Where are the lawyers’ bills? Common Cause filed a complaint with the CFB asking that very thing. The CFB investigated very thoroughly — to Tony Sutton’s chagrin — and said, They’re in a tin can buried behind party headquarters.
The name of the tin can was Count Them All Properly, a corporation that was formed to raise money on the side to retire the debt. The CFB levied about $30,000 in fines over the false disclosure, but it also made some observations about money raised by CTAP and paid to the lawyers to retire RPM debt:
CTAP was formed nearly at the end of the recount process and did no business whatsoever until the RPM had incurred all of the legal fee obligations that are the subject of these findings. CTAP did not conduct any recount activities or engage in any activity other than accepting one contribution, making three payments for RPM legal fees, and paying some miscellaneous costs of its operations.
The Board concluded above that the payments by CTAP for the RPM attorneys’ fees constituted contributions to the RPM. As a result, the Board further concludes that the major purpose of CTAP was to raise money to make contributions to the RPM. This gives rise to the question of whether CTAP is, itself, a political committee.
That is, kids, CTAP made corporate campaign contributions to the RPM, a violation of Minn. Stat. § 211B.15. But the CFB didn’t do anything about that, because it didn’t have the jurisdiction. Now it will.
And there are expanded penalty provisions, too:
Currently, the maximum civil penalty at the OAH for a violation of § 211B.15 is $5000.
As we know, a complaint was filed at the Office of Administrative Hearings by Common Cause Minnesota over the illegal corporate contributions, and minor penalties were assessed there. Given how appalled the CFB was over the RPM’s conduct, one wonders if the RPM, Tony Sutton, Count Them All Properly and the other defendants would have gotten off so easily if the CFB had handled this aspect of the case. Personally, I doubt it.
The two complaints in each of the cases against Ernie Leidiger and the RPM would have benefited from “one-stop shopping” before the CFB. The public would have benefited, too, from the reduced administration cost. Perhaps even more valuable will be the ability of the CFB to render advisory opinions to campaigns about the interpretation of the three sections.
Update: A reader, well actually, it was MNO, pointed out that the RPM will almost certainly get, if it hasn’t already, a bill from the lawyers who defended Sutton before the OAH, since he wasn’t fined. Sutton is indeed the gift that keeps on giving.
Thanks for your feedback. If we like what you have to say, it may appear in a future post of reader reactions.