This summer Minnesota’s campaign finance agency will make its way through a couple of pending challenges brought by a watchdog group that’s taking a number of Republican-centered causes to task.
Common Cause Minnesota is awaiting the outcome of complaints it’s filed with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board (CFPD) on two high-profile issues: alleged improprieties in the state Republican Party’s financial reporting, and accusations that social conservative groups are skirting donor disclosure laws as they push a ballot initiative to outlaw same-sex marriage in the state Constitution.
Gary Goldsmith, the executive director of the CFPD, said he can’t confirm or deny the existence of any investigation by the board. But key players on both sides of the issues have been vocal about the allegations. Moreover, there have been occasional bits of news that suggest the investigations, particularly with regard to the GOP finances, are proceeding toward a conclusion.
Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, said the CFPD held a rare closed-door meeting last week. While the agenda is unknown, the session suggests that developments may be coming to a head in the state GOP finances complaint, Dean said. (Another source has told Capitol Report that two prominent Republicans connected to last year’s gubernatorial recount, GOP nominee Tom Emmer and party activist Mary Igo, have been deposed by CFPD.)
One key date that’s looming is June 5, when the next CFPD board meeting is scheduled. It’s possible that the board members could emerge from executive session with a decision on Common Cause’s complaint, he said.
Dean’s organization filed a complaint about the state GOP after Chairman Tony Sutton resigned and it was revealed by party officials on Dec. 30 that the party was $2 million in debt — roughly four times more than party activists had been led to believe just a month earlier.
Dean received a letter from CFPD in January indicating that his complaint would be investigated. The investigation concerns Common Cause’s allegations that a subsidiary corporation set up by the GOP called Count Them All Properly Inc. was designed to “avoid disclosure of contributions” from the 2010 gubernatorial recount. The revelation that the fund was connected to the state GOP added $719,000 in debt to the party’s balance sheet.
“What I allege is they created this [corporation] to funnel money through,” Dean said, “to essentially hide the donors to the fund but also to keep those expenses off the books of the Republican Party of Minnesota. And in doing so, [they committed] a violation of [Minnesota Statutes] 10A under the circumvention clause.”
GOP officials recently mentioned the investigation in a May 7 report of the party’s Financial Controls and Oversight Committee. “As to the part of the investigation connected with the 2010 recount, the Party is vigorously contesting the allegations contained in the Common Cause complaint,” the report said. “No evaluation of the likely outcome of the Board’s investigation is possible at this stage of the investigation. The investigation is ongoing, and on the advice of our attorneys, no further comment can be made.”
After filing his CFPD complaint, Dean subsequently wrote a letter to Ramsey County Attorney John Choi asking him to work with the St. Paul Police Department to investigate the GOP’s actions regarding Count Them All Properly. A spokesman for the Ramsey County attorney’s office acknowledged receiving the letter last week and said a response was being prepared for release on Friday after press time.
Common Cause’s challenges to disclosure practices among groups raising money in support of the ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage in the state Constitution are part of a legal battle that’s been unfolding since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision that allowed corporations to spend money to influence the outcomes of elections.
Since the decision, social conservative groups have gone to court to challenge the legality of requiring groups to reveal the identities of their underlying donors.
In a case against the Minnesota Family Council brought by Common Cause earlier this year, Dean argued that 2011 campaign finance reports show that the majority of the group’s fundraising is related to the marriage amendment. That makes the ballot initiative the group’s “major purpose” and they should therefore be required to register as a political committee and abide by disclosure regulations, he said.
Common Cause has also brought a complaint against the umbrella group Minnesota for Marriage, an affiliate of the National Organization for Marriage and an active campaigner in support of the amendment. Dean’s complaint said the group listed only seven donors on its 2011 campaign finance report, representing just a tiny fraction of the $830,000 it raised. The bulk of the money was contributed by groups like the National Organization for Marriage and the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which are not political committees and do not have to disclose their underlying donors.
Filing a false report is a gross misdemeanor that carries a maximum $3,000 fine. The real object of Dean’s complaint, he said, is to compel greater disclosure.
“You’ve seen nationally when these groups are running these ballot campaigns to support traditional marriage laws,” Dean said, “they almost always oppose disclosure laws and they almost always try to hide their donors. This is what we’re seeing happen now in Minnesota. Really what I want to see is full disclosure, following the state law. That’s what I think a victory would look like in this particular case.”
Dean said he was asked by the CFPD to respond to questions regarding the “major purpose” issue in the Minnesota Family Council complaint. Dean submitted a written response to the CFPD in April.
A spokesman for Minnesota for Marriage said he’s not aware of any recent developments in the matter. The group maintains that Common Cause’s complaint is “a political stunt.”
“Minnesota for Marriage has complied with Minnesota law and all of CFB’s guidance,” John Helmberger, the group’s chairman, said in a news release last March when the complaint was filed.
If taking on the state Republican Party and the anti-gay marriage groups weren’t enough of a caseload for Common Cause, the group recently took on a national conservative lightning rod, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The group operates nationally and creates model legislation for its members to introduce in state legislatures.
Common Cause filed complaints with the CFPD and the Minnesota attorney general’s office contending that ALEC is improperly established as a charity and needs to register as a lobbying entity. Dean said he hasn’t heard from the CFPD regarding whether that complaint will be investigated.