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On Saturday, Pat Shortridge was elected as the state party chairman in a statewide gathering of GOP activists in St. Cloud. Afterward the veteran GOP strategist suggested that the party had turned an important corner.

State GOP: New day, old troubles

Pat Shortridge, the new state Republican Party chairman, said, “I think we’ve got a great opportunity to start fresh,” even as the party faces about $2 million in unpaid bills. (Staff photo: Briana Bierschbach)

Republican Party officials want to put damaging revelations of financial mismanagement behind them.

On Saturday, Pat Shortridge was elected as the state party chairman in a statewide gathering of GOP activists in St. Cloud. Afterward the veteran GOP strategist suggested that the party had turned an important corner.

“If you don’t have confidence in a party, you’re not going to raise money,” Shortridge told reporters shortly after easily defeating two other candidates for the post. “But I think we can do that. I think we’ve got a great opportunity to start fresh, to turn the calendar to 2012, to put some of the past behind us and move forward.”

But a number of difficult questions remain about the state of GOP finances. Last week’s revelation that the party is likely on the hook for more than $2 million in unpaid bills — roughly twice as much as previously thought — coupled with the resignation of Secretary/Treasurer David Sturrock, further complicated matters.

Many activists would like to see a full-blown audit of the books so that there’s confidence moving forward regarding the exact state of the party’s finances. But as Republican National Committeeman Jeff Johnson, who helped lead an internal review of the books, pointed out at Saturday’s gathering, outside audits aren’t free. “It won’t be cheap,” he warned.

At a minimum, Rick Weible, GOP chairman for the 3rd Congressional District, would like to see a more vigorous examination of the party’s expenses. The main focus of the internal financial review was establishing a thorough picture of the party’s debts. But there was relatively little scrutiny of whether all the expenses incurred were legitimate. Weible suggests carefully examining disbursements for just two months in order to determine if there appear to be significant problems.

“That’s where I still have a lot of questions,” Weible said. “There’s more questions than answers that I have right now.”

There are also concerns about whether the state GOP will be facing additional fines from the Federal Election Commission (FEC). In August, party officials agreed to pay a $170,000 fine for campaign finance reporting violations. The party still owes $120,000 to the FEC to settle that matter. But new disclosures — in particular, $400,000 in previously unreported debts — suggest that more sanctions might be in the pipeline. Party officials have stated that they have been talking with FEC officials as the inquiry has proceeded in an effort to blunt any future penalties.

“We don’t know what those fines might be, if there are fines,” Johnson told delegates on Saturday. “There very well might be.”

In addition, many GOP activists want to make changes to the party’s bylaws to ensure that such financial mismanagement isn’t allowed to occur in the future. In Sturrock’s resignation letter, he stated that he was unaware of the party’s apparent obligation to pay more than $700,000 in legal bills stemming from the 2010 gubernatorial recount, as well as the roughly $400,000 in unpaid bills that had not previously been disclosed. “If future Secretary-Treasurers are to be meaningful assets to the Republican Party they will need to be informed more fully, and consulted more frequently, than has [been the] case over the past few administrations,” Sturrock wrote. “In particular, they need to know when the party is entering into major financial commitments.”

Many party activists and officials are debating what changes need to be made to ensure future financial accountability. Randy Gilbert, a businessman and GOP activist from Long Lake, suggests that the duties of party officers need to be more explicitly defined. In addition, Gilbert believes that more than one individual should be required to authorize any payments or financial obligations. “Let’s put some controls in place so going forward, we don’t ever have to worry about this happening again,” Gilbert said.

Another lingering question is whether some kind of investigation should be conducted into the financial stewardship of former party officials, especially former Chairman Tony Sutton. Many party activists believe that — at the least — there was negligence on the part of individuals charged with overseeing the party’s finances.

Weible says there remain too many unknowns to determine the proper course of action. “I think the honest answer is all options are on the table, and we haven’t decided yet,” he said. “I think it’s premature to say the chapter’s closed on that, and it’s also too premature to say we’re going to go after them.”

Shortridge indicated on Saturday that he believes there should be scrutiny and accountability for past financial decisions. “I think most of our party is not interested in trying to drive ahead looking in the rearview mirror,” he said. “I think we’ve got to take a very careful and thorough look at the facts and find out what happened … and follow that trail where it goes.”

Another vexing issue for party officials is how to persuade donors to open their wallets when the party is mired in debt. GOP donors might be inclined to instead funnel their contributions to independent organizations that can promise to spend the money directly on influencing elections.

“The obvious problem is people would like to contribute money to elect a candidate, not contribute money to pay off a debt,” said Bill Cooper, a former GOP state party chairman. “It’s just perfectly obvious it’s going to be a difficult thing to do.”

Ron Carey, who succeeded Cooper in the party’s top post, seconds that opinion. “No question some donors are hesitant to give if they only think it’s going to pay off the debt,” Carey said. “That’s when you sell them on the big picture: If you don’t pay off the debt there won’t be any program to further [the Republican cause].”

That sales job will fall to Shortridge in the coming months. On Saturday he expressed confidence that the party can begin both paying off debt and restocking the campaign coffers for 2012. “Our values and principles and beliefs are solid and strong, and they’re working, and we don’t need to re-evaluate those,” Shortridge said. “But I think we do need to re-evaluate almost everything else in terms of how we operate the party and how it functions and what we’re doing. We have to question all sorts of things and look at new approaches.”

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