After more than a month of evidentiary hearings, the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings ruled June 21 on a complaint brought by Minnetrista councilmember Shannon Bruce last fall when she alleged possible breaches of campaign finance law by four local candidates and one local committee during the 2014 and 2018 elections.
The OAH found that a former council member and two current council members and mayor - along with a political action committee - were in violation of Minnesota campaign finance regulations.
In her complaint, Bruce had alleged that Minnetrista Mayor Lisa Whalen, councilmembers Pam Mortenson and John Tschumperlin and former councilmember Patricia Thoele were supported by the group Our Minnetrista and were each alleged to have received between $3,000 and $6,000 from the group during the 2014 and 2018 elections. Karen Danielson, founding member of Our Minnetrista, testified during hearings that the group’s purpose was to allow residents to express concerns about city government and work to elect candidates who shared their vision for the community.
In its decision, the OAH determined that Our Minnetrista was acting as a political committee, soliciting donations, preparing and disseminating campaign materials and opening separate checking accounts for each candidate under the Our Minnetrista name.
By law, Our Minnetrista, as a committee, was required to file campaign financial reports, which it failed to do in both 2014 and 2018, according to the OAH, though Danielson did file individual reports for each candidate in each election. Even so, Danielson “reported all contributions as having come from the individuals who donated to Our Minnetrista, and the expenditures as being paid by the candidates, rather than Our Minnetrista,” the OAH decision reads.
Candidate filings show donations were divided equally among each candidate. Mirrored expenditures also appear under each candidate’s name.
Additionally, at least one donation of $750, six of $1,000 and one of $1,800 were made to Our Minnetrista in 2014, the OAH found, confirming that Our Minnetrista and the candidates it represented received individual contributions above the $600 election year cap for donations to candidates and committees in candidate territories with populations of 100,000 or less.
The 2014 mayor’s race saw Whalen win the keys to the city over Mark Vanderlinde by a margin of less than 200 votes. That election also seated Mortenson and Thoele, two candidates new to campaigning for public office, on the city council. Come November 2018, Mortenson won reelection, this time joined by Tschumperlin. Thoele did not run for reelection that year, citing plans to move outside of Minnetrista.
More than $22,900 coming from 54 donors was distributed equally to Mortenson, Thoele and Whalen in 2014; Mortenson and Tschumperlin each received more than $4,550 from 47 donors during the 2018 campaign.
The candidates in each election testified to knowing of Our Minnetrista’s role as financial middleman, but the OAH stopped short of determining criminal activity, noting that although “[...] candidates’ violation of the contribution limits was negligent and difficult to correct or counter,” the evidence was not enough to prove any party engaged in the concealment intentionally.
“Danielson sought advice from a variety of sources to learn the appropriate way to account for campaign contributions and expenses,” the decision reads. “And though she ultimately did so incorrectly, her attempt to obtain information weighs against a finding of intentional concealment.”
Having determined that “Our Minnetrista’s failure to file campaign financial reports in 2018 was ill-advised, corrupted the political process, and created an unfair advantage for the candidates it supported for two elective offices,” the OAH ordered Our Minnetrista to pay a $2,000 penalty as well as submit campaign financial reports for the 2018 election by Aug. 1. Thoele, Tschumperlin and Whalen are each to pay $600 while Mortenson, involved in the violations of both elections, is to pay a $1,200 penalty. Each candidate must also submit corrected financial reports.