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Board chief: Michelle MacDonald CLE expense looks legit

A 2014 continuing legal education course — listed among Supreme Court candidate Michelle MacDonald’s 12 “unpaid obligations” on her Sept. 24 campaign financial disclosure report — appears to be a legitimate campaign expense, the state Campaign Finance Board said Monday.

Nonetheless, the board has asked MacDonald’s campaign committee to amend its disclosure form and provide more detailed financial information than was furnished in September.

“They are aware that they need to provide more information on some of the expenditures,” said Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Jeff Sigurdson.

MacDonald told Minnesota Lawyer last week that the nearly $9,000 in “unpaid obligations” her campaign committee lists on its Sept. 24 disclosure form is all money that she personally paid out of pocket in previous campaigns. Her campaign committee owes the money to her, she said last week.

“I am not in a big hurry to pay myself back and that is why the debts are still showing up,” she said in an Oct. 10 email.

While that could be true, the latest filing does not reflect it, Sigurdson said Monday. “They seem to be aware of that,” he said of Monday. “So we are going to work with them.”

Valid expenditure

A $525 bill, listed as a campaign expense on MacDonald’s latest form, reflects CLE credits she earned during a 2014 conference held by Minnesota Continuing Legal Education, 2550 University Ave. W., in St. Paul, MacDonald said last week. A source at that institution, however, said it does not hold such conferences.

But new information MacDonald supplied to Minnesota Lawyer late on Oct. 12 suggests that she is correct. The misunderstanding appears to be the result of confused terminology. Rather than a law conference, it appears MacDonald attended a seminar on judicial campaign law.

MacDonald provided evidence of that in an email late Friday evening, which included a photo attachment picturing an April 2014 memo directed at “all candidates and prospective candidates for judicial office.”

That memo invites the candidates to a June 16, 2014, event that it variously describes as a “special seminar” and a “course” on judicial campaign law. The memo never references the event as a “conference.”

MacDonald also attached a second photo, which appears to show an information packet distributed to the seminar’s attendees.

On Monday, Sigurdson said the course probably would be allowable as a campaign expense — assuming MacDonald verifies she attended it when her campaign files its amended disclosures. “That’s the type of course that the board has never had any problem with,” Sigurdson said. “That type of course is an acceptable use of committee funds.”

It remains odd that all unpaid bills on the campaign committee’s list — even the 2014 CLE course — are dated to Jan. 1, 2018, and that no purpose is given for any of the committee’s 12 unpaid bills — four of which are listed as payments to MacDonald as a vendor.

But Sigurdson said he thinks those errors and omissions likely resulted from difficulties the campaign had using the state’s campaign-finance reporting software, which the board supplies free to campaigns.

“We are going to work with them to get an amendment,” Sigurdson said. “It may be on a paper report, frankly. They’re not a real big committee and it may just be easier to get a paper report done.”

MacDonald is competing in her third consecutive bid for the state’s highest court. She is challenging incumbent Supreme Court Associate Justice Margaret Chutich.

In late 2016, she was fined $500 by the Office of Administrative Hearings for violating campaign-finance law after claiming in a newspaper voters guide that she had been endorsed by a state Republican Party convention committee.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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