Suburban Campaign Finance Controversy Heats Up

Shannon Bruce

Perhaps it’s premature to call it Minnetristagate. But the campaign contribution controversy in the Twin Cities suburb of Minnetrista that American Experiment first exposed in January appears to be warming up faster than the weather.

The complaint before the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) alleges a variety of campaign finance and reporting violations in the 2014 and 2018 Minnetrista municipal elections.

Minnetrista City Councilor Shannon Bruce filed the Fair Campaign Practices Act complaints against  sitting Minnetrista Mayor Lisa Whalen, two current and one former Minnetrista city councilor and two individuals with a group called Our Minnetrista. (OAH case# 71-0325-35774)

The respondents denied the allegations in a statement issued at the time by their attorneys at Lockridge Grindal Nauen.

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.

Over the weekend Bruce posted an update on the proceedings on her taxpayer watchdog website, Minnetrista Governance Blog.

No judgement as of yet but Respondents in the case, which include Minnetrista Mayor Lisa Whalen, two present council members (Mortenson/Tschumperlin), one past council member (Thoele) and leaders of the “Our Minnetrista” organization, have admitted that contributions recorded as coming from individuals actually came from “Our Minnetrista” and were deposited into “Our Minnetrista” accounts, not accounts belonging to the candidates themselves as their disclosure reports showed.

Subpoenaed bank records also showed many of the contributions to “Our Minnetrista” far exceeded the $600 statutory contribution limit. The scheme involved taking contributions that exceeded the limit and dividing them up among the candidates and recording them as multiple smaller contributions.

Bruce also provided an intriguing clue as to how the alleged irregularities first surfaced.

The scheme managed to go undetected for years until a banking regulation required that checking accounts opened under an assumed name had to be registered with the Secretary of State’s office. The discovery of the registration of “Our Minnetrista” as an assumed name led, among other findings, to the eventual filing of the complaint.

Both parties have asked the administrative law judge for a quick “summary disposition” of the case, according to Bruce. The state’s website describes the grounds on which an administrative law judge may act without a full hearing.

A motion for summary disposition asks the judge to rule that there is no need for a hearing because the law is clear and the outcome cannot be disputed.

Whatever the outcome, Minnetristagate raises questions about the monitoring of campaign finance compliance at the local level and the impact on the integrity of local elections.