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Meffert files ethics complaint against Paulsen

WASHINGTON — Jim Meffert’s campaign today filed an formal ethics complaint against Rep. Erik Paulsen, charging that the freshman Republican sent out a deliberately deceptive mailing at taxpayer expense.

WASHINGTON — Jim Meffert’s campaign today filed an formal ethics complaint against Rep. Erik Paulsen, charging that the freshman Republican sent out a deliberately deceptive mailing at taxpayer expense.

Meffert campaign manager Alex Falconer wrote in the complaint that he believes Paulsen’s mailer “has been designed and implemented to mislead his constituents using taxpayer dollars during an election year.”

Paulsen spokesman Mark Giga, meanwhile, dismissed the complaint as a “cheap political stunt from a desperate campaign.” Meffert is the Democratic candidate in the 3rd District, running against Paulsen in the general election.

At issue is a piece of franked mail that Paulsen’s office sent out earlier this spring on the rising national debt, projected to hit more than $16 trillion by the year 2012.

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Three points of data are used, from 2007, 2009 and an estimate for 2012, spaced relatively equally apart. The dollar figures on the longitudinal axis are about $4 trillion apart from point to point, yet the latter rise appears two to three times as large as the former.

In effect, a curve that actually begins to flatten after 2009 (when President Obama took office) appears in the mailing to rise dramatically instead. Additionally, the line between points two and three appears to curve upwards without explanation from the underlying data.

“If plotted correctly, Paulsen’s own numbers would show an economy that is slowing the bleeding; but Paulsen manipulated the numbers on the graph to show the opposite of the truth,” Meffert campaign manager Alex Falconer said in a statement announcing the filing.

“He [Paulsen] lied to the people of the Third District and he should be held accountable. Congressman Paulsen should be investigated, and we need to find out how he was able to push such a deceitful piece through the House Ethics Committee. Any other parties responsible for allowing this grossly misleading piece of mail to be sent to Third District residents at taxpayer expense should also be held responsible.”

Replied Giga: “There isn’t a single number or word on this mailing that’s inaccurate.”

Vetted and approved

A mailing sent out as franked mail is paid for by taxpayer dollars and required to be vetted ahead of time. They’re meant to be official pieces of informative mail — calls to action or for donations are not allowed, for example.

It’s deliberately different than campaign literature that advises a voter to cast his or her ballot one way or another that is subject to no such factual vetting. Franking is forbidden within 90 days of any election in which the member’s name appears on a ballot.

And as literature with standards that need to be met in advance, all franked mailings are reviewed by the House Administration Committee’s Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards (more commonly known as the Franking Commission).

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It’s made up of three Democrats and three Republicans and chaired by a member of the party that holds the House — in this case a Democrat, Susan Davis of California. No Minnesotans sit on the commission or the Administration Committee.

Committee records show a review of Paulsen’s mailer began on Feb. 18. An advisory staff opinion, signed by both a majority and minority staffer, was issued to Paulsen’s office on March 12. It read: “Material is deemed Frankable under provisions of: 3210(a)(3)(B).”

That specific subsection of the U.S. Code allows as Frankable “the usual and customary congressional newsletter or press release which may deal with such matters as the impact of laws and decisions on State and local governments and individual citizens; reports on public and official actions taken by Members of Congress; and discussions of proposed or pending legislation or governmental actions and the positions of the Members of Congress on, and arguments for or against, such matters”

“It was approved by the committee so they obviously didn’t have a problem with it,” Paulsen spokesman Mark Giga said.

Misleading graph?

Falconer’s complaint says the graph in question “suggests an explosion in the deficit from now through 2012. In fact, if the data were presented accurately, the deficit increase would appear to be leveling off.”

Giga countered that the graph did not attempt to show the federal deficit (year to year spending outlays over revenue intakes), but rather the national debt (the aggregate of all deficits minus surpluses), which currently stands at around $13.49 trillion.

Asked if the graph itself was at all misleading, Giga reminded that it was approved by a Democratic staffer and a Democrat-chaired committee.

Asked if the graph accurately portrayed the data behind it, Giga replied that it was “accurate enough that the Democrats on that [franking] committee were fine with us sending this out to the 3rd District.”

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“I think far more important than the graph is that every number on the piece is accurate,” Giga said.

However, Peter Sprangers, a doctoral biostatistics student at Ohio State University who reviewed the matter for Meffert’s campaign, said the graph “doesn’t look anything like what you would get while using conventional statistics software packages.”

“The only way I can think to generate something like this would be to create a standard line graph, open it in Photoshop, and manually adjust the location of the data points and curvature of the line segments.  It’s disingenuous at best, malicious at worst.”

Chart from Paulsen's mailing.
Chart showing U.S. debt from Paulsen’s mailing.
Correct plotting of U.S. debt.
Correct plotting of U.S. debt.