Campaign complaint rocks Minnetrista

The issue of the influence of political contributions and the cost of campaigns typically surfaces in the context of federal elections. But a campaign finance controversy unfolding in the Twin Cities suburb of Minnetrista serves to remind that “big money” in politics can be relative–$600 contribution limits in this case.

You won’t find the candidates or contributors involved in the action now before the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) listed on Open Secrets or Follow The Money.

But an administrative law judge has ordered an unusual Fair Campaign Practices Act complaint filed by current Minnetrista City Councilor Shannon Bruce against sitting Minnetrista Mayor Lisa Whalen, two current and one former Minnetrista city councilor and two individuals with a group called Our Minnetrista, to move forward in February.

A panel of three administrative law judges generally hears campaign practices complaints, according to the OAH website.

The panel may dismiss the matter, issue a reprimand, impose a civil penalty of up to $5,000 and/or refer the complaint to a county attorney for criminal proceedings. Complaints filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings must proceed to a final order before the alleged violation may be prosecuted by a county attorney.

Minnesota law limits a candidate or a candidate’s committee in cities of under 100,000 from accepting  “aggregate contributions made or delivered by an individual or committee in excess of $600 in an election year for the office sought and $250 in other years.”

Bruce’s complaint alleges a variety of campaign finance and reporting violations in the 2014 and 2018 Minnetrista municipal elections.

“The Minnetrista electorate deserves fair and open elections,” Bruce said in a press release. “It’s important everyone play by the same rules. When an organization or group of candidates operate outside the law, it damages public trust in our government institutions and discourages citizen involvement in politics.”

Mayor Whalen categorically denied Bruce’s allegations in an email.

“I feel very strongly that there is no basis for this complaint,” Whalen wrote. “…Patricia, Pam and I worked really hard to not only gain the respect and trust at city hall but also of the public. We accomplished this through HONEST hard work, transparency and ethical conduct. We were fully transparent and disclosed all our campaign finances and expenses.”

The respondents have hired the powerhouse firm of Lockridge Grindal Nauen to petition the administrative law court judge to dismiss the complaint at a scheduled February 8 hearing. Lockridge issued this statement on their behalf.

“Our campaigns were successful because we focused on bringing our community together. We believe that government should be open, transparent, and accountable to the voters. We ran our campaigns the same way. We are confident that the Office of Administrative Hearings will see that we always acted in good faith and disclosed all of our campaign activity.”

The OAH website lists the following possible penalties in these cases.

Every case is unique and each penalty will be selected to reflect the specific facts of the case. In order to assure some consistency from one case to the next, the three judge panel uses a presumptive penalty matrix as guidance. In any case, the three judge panel may depart from the presumptive penalty listed below and will explain the reasons for any departures.

Gravity of Violation
Minimal/no impact on voters, easily countered 
Some impact on several voters, difficult to correct/counter 
Many voters misled, process corrupted, unfair advantage created 
Deliberate, multiple violations in complaint, history of violations, clear statute, unapologetic
$600 – 1,200 
$1,200 – 2,400 and/or Refer to County Attorney 
$2,400 – 5,000 and/or Refer to County Attorney 
Negligent, ill-advised, ill-considered
$250 – 600 
$600 – 1,200
$1,200 – 2,400 and/or Refer to County Attorney
Inadvertent, isolated, promptly corrected, vague statute, accepts responsibility
$0 – 250
$600 – 1,200