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In an official response, chief of staff Tina Smith said the state paying for Hottinger's travel was "an error and will not happen again.

OLA: Dayton administration ran afoul of law by bringing campaign staffer

Gov. Mark Dayton used an official state airplane on three occasions in late 2012. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Gov. Mark Dayton used an official state airplane on three occasions in late 2012. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

A campaign trip Mark Dayton took in 2012 violated state law, as did a campaign staffer’s travel on an official state airplane, according to a new report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor. The report suggests that the state law on use of publicly owned airplanes for mixed purposes is currently muddled, and should be revised to draw clearer boundaries on what is allowable.

At issue were three separate trips Dayton took using a Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) airplane. During the fall of 2012, in the run-up to that year’s election, Dayton flew out of St. Paul for appearances in Willmar, Brainerd and Bemidji. On each trip, Dayton combined official state business with political events; a subsequent flight from Bemidji to International Falls was made for purely political purposes. On that flight, Dayton’s travel companions on the plane included Julie Hottinger, a campaign staffer who is not employed by the state.

Using the plane to transport Dayton and Hottinger for a political event was determined to be a violation of both state statute and MnDOT policy. According to the code of ethics for executive branch employees, state funds, resources or property cannot be deployed for “any … use not in the  interest of the state.”  The audit report spells out certain exceptions to that law, including security detail personnel, who will travel with the governor regardless of the nature of an event.

In this instance, Dayton’s staff argued that the use of the official plane was a matter of security, telling OLA investigators that the MnDOT aircraft gives the administration staff greater control over equipment and choice of pilots.

The report recommendations find that the state-issued plane should not be used if the governor is traveling only for a political reason, or is bringing political staffers. But, for cases when a governor plans to attend both official and political functions, the current law lacks clarity, and the OLA recommends that the Legislature take up the issue to spell out its legality.

“In the meantime,” the report states, “we recommend that Governor Dayton encourage his office staff and campaign staff to schedule his travel in ways that strictly limit the use of a state airplane to attend political events.”

In an official response penned on behalf of Dayton, chief of staff Tina Smith said the state’s paying for Hottinger’s travel resulted from “an error and will not happen again.” Smith also  points out that the Dayton campaign had intended all along to split costs for the trips that combined both public and political activities, and reimbursed the state fully for the trip from Bemidji to International Falls.

On a further point, Smith writes that Dayton’s extensive experience with both public and private flights over the past four decades has convinced him that the “consistent reliability of government planes and pilots greatly exceeds that possible from private charter services.” Smith closes her response by writing that Dayton’s policy of flying and then paying back the state with campaign funds mirrors that of his predecessor, Tim Pawlenty.

Later Thursday, the Minnesota Jobs Coalition and Common Cause Minnesota issued a rare joint press release calling on Dayton to accept the recommendations in the auditor’s report, and to stop using the plane for any trip that is solely political in nature.

“We call on Gov. Dayton to implement the recommendations of the legislative auditor and refrain from conducting any campaign activity using taxpayer-funded resources,” said Common Cause executive director Kevin Magnuson.

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