Two Republican state senators have accused Secretary of State Mark Ritchie of potentially criminal behavior in a complaint filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings. In the complaint, Sens. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, and Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, allege that Ritchie has abused his office by using it to speak out against the voter ID constitutional amendment on this fall’s ballot, and that his trips across the state to warn about the amendment’s potential negative consequences amount to campaign activity using taxpayer money.
Through the OAH process, sources say, the complaint could be dismissed, or Ritchie could be found in violation and issued a fine. Alternately, an administrative law judge could also find probable cause that Ritchie’s actions rise to the level of a gross misdemeanor and refer the case to the St. Paul City Attorney. The filing was the “first of four potential steps” that the senators are considering, Parry said at a Thursday morning press conference at the Capitol.
According to Parry, those additional steps could include a complaint to the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board alleging that Ritchie should have registered a ballot committee to disclose political expenses; a complaint with the Office of the Legislative Auditor, which could investigate allegations of misuses of state funds; and the initiation of a a federal review to investigate whether Ritchie’s actions are in violation of the Hatch Act, a federal law that prohibits civil servants from partaking in certain political acts.
Newman, the Senate chief author of the voter ID bill that passed through the Legislature earlier this year and will be put to voters on election day, said Ritchie is trying to influence the outcome of the vote.
“In doing so,” Newman claimed, “he has violated a number of Minnesota statutes.”
Aside from Ritchie’s alleged use of state funds to campaign against the amendment, Newman and Parry also claim that the secretary of state has repeatedly and deliberately misled voters about the potential fallout if the photo ID amendment passes. Chiefly, Ritchie has told constituents that the amendment’s implementation could cost local governments up to $50 million, a figure that Newman said is more than two times the estimate from Minnesota Management and Budget at the time of the bill’s passage. On other occasions, Ritchie has said the bill would end same-day registration in Minnesota, which Newman disputes.
“I have all the faith that [OAH] will do a very thorough job,” Newman said. “And that is what the Office of Administrative Hearings and administrative law judges do, they make these kind of decisions.”
The complaint alleges that Ritchie has used state funds to travel to at least six different towns across the state, and possibly “many more.” On these trips, local media outlets reported statements from Ritchie reiterating the $50 million cost claim and the threat to same day registration, which the complaint labels “materially false and misleading information.”
Aside from Ritchie’s public comments, the complaint points to a page on the Secretary of State’s website that addresses the constitutional amendment questions. The complaint alleges that Ritchie is attempting to use the site, created “ostensibly to ‘educate’ voters on the constitutional question,” to push voters to turn against voter ID.
“Even a cursory review of these documents shows their plain purpose of advocacy for Mr. Ritchie’s position in opposition to the proposed amendment,” reads the complaint. “More important, in the view of these Complainants, these published website documents are rife with falsehoods and misinformation clearly intended to misinform voters as to the nature of the amendments they will be considering.”
The complaint features a letter Ritchie sent earlier this month to Barbara Farrell, president of Minnesota Gold Star Mothers, the local chapter of the military and veteran’s affairs advocacy group. In the letter, Ritchie directs Farrell to the disputed section of the Secretary of State’s website, where, he writes, Farrell can learn more about the amendment proposal. Ritchie volunteers himself or members of his staff to meet with Farrell and other leaders of Gold Star Mothers to talk further about the amendment.
The last line of Ritchie’s letter to Farrell reads: “Minnesota voters can veto this bill and send it back to the legislature by voting ‘no’ on November 6.”
Over the summer, Parry publicly floated the idea of initiating impeachment hearings against Ritchie for his conduct relating to the voter ID and marriage amendments. Parry said he has been discussing Ritchie’s actions with his colleagues for several months.
“All of the senators that I talked to are concerned about this,” Parry said.
Parry declined to answer when any of the other three possible actions could be taken against Ritchie, saying only that they would be taking it “one step at a time.”
Newman and Parry are taking the action as individuals, and have retained prominent Republican attorney Fritz Knaak to argue their case. Newman said neither the caucus nor the state would be paying for the legal fees, though he side-stepped a direct question on whether the senators would pay out of pocket.
A spokesperson for Ritchie said his office was reviewing the complaint, and that Ritchie “does not comment on litigation.”