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Stung by fines and ruling, Minnesota GOP tries to regroup

After fines and a harsh ruling issued by the campaign board, GOP officials begin to rebuild party’s finances and image.

Former GOP chair Tony Sutton dismissed the findings with a brief statement in his blog.

Right after the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board released its report on the Minnesota Republican Party’s handling the 2010 gubernatorial recount, Tom Emmer texted party chair Pat Shortridge a message of encouragement.

“I just wanted to tell him, ‘It’s time to close the chapter and move on,’ ” Emmer said.  

Given the serious fines and blunt recriminations against the party and that the 27-page report was studded with words such as “failed,” “omitted,” “circumvention” and “criminal,” Emmer’s comments might appear wildly optimistic. And even though Emmer, as the gubernatorial candidate, was distanced from the pigsty of the party’s finances, his cheerful tone would seem discordant with his party’s financial condition. That condition got worse with the board’s finding Friday that the party is also responsible for $600,000 in recount legal fees.

But while the party was preparing for the worst from the campaign finance board, Shortridge and his team have managed to erase a significant portion of its debt. According to Bill Jungbauer of St. Paul, who just rotated off the party’s executive committee, since the first of the year, the Republican Party has repaid $1 million from its existing $2.1 million obligations. “Things are looking good,” he said. 

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Jungbauer said that Shortridge gets high marks from the party’s executive committee, a change from its relationship with former party chair Tony Sutton.   “He’s [Shortridge] very transparent. Pat brings everything in front of the committee, things that Sutton would have never consulted us on,” Jungbauer said.

The party’s new financial direction includes reducing the party’s debt by cutting expenses and an ongoing discussion to make settlements with every entity that’s owed money. Shortridge told his executive committee that his goal is to pay off the party’s debt, not including legal fees, by the November election.

Jungbauer points out that, with the exception of the party’s landlord, “No one has taken the party to court because everyone believes in what we profess.” Contributions are picking up, he said, fueled by a strong anti-Obama sentiment in the Republican base.

But Jungbauer and others don’t underplay the seriousness of the findings of the Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board. The board found that the party, under the direction of Sutton, created a shadow corporation, Count Them All Properly, Inc., specifically to avoid disclosure of contributions to pay for the recount. Sutton and the party received fines of $3,000 and $26,900 respectively for violating state law. The campaign finance board is continuing its investigation.  

Common Cause, which filed the complaint that prompted the investigation, may seek a criminal inquiry. “The Republican Party acted irresponsibly and should apologize to Minnesota voters,” said Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause.

Emmer shares with other Republican supporters a respect for the findings. “I think that the campaign finance board was very thorough, careful and considerate, and frankly tried to be very fair, recognizing that there were internal controls that were lacking that now have been addressed,” he said. 

Now, Emmer says, the party has to take on a challenge equal to securing the party’s financial footing: uniting Republicans in focus and in message.

“There’s a battle of ideas in the party between those who want to manage the size of government and those who want to reduce the size of government,” he said. “How do you handle that so that the people who want to support you continue to show up with the talent and their checkbooks?”  With the party’s new leadership, it’s time to move forward, he said, because “who are you going to punish?”

“Tony Sutton,” responds a chorus of Republican activists, new and old – and the campaign finance board agreed. Although it placed some of the blame for the party’s sloppy financial reporting on its former treasurer, David Sturrock, the board named the former chair as the ultimate responsible party. Sutton alone received a personal fine.

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According to the findings of the board: “Sutton personally took over control of spending late in 2010. He testified that he became much more active in the party’s day-to-day finances…While regular spending appeared to be out of control, not even the most rudimentary budgets, approvals, or controls were in place for the costs undertaken by the RPM for the 2010 recount.

“Tony Sutton, former chair of the RPM, violated Minnesota Statutes section 10A.29 when he redirected a contribution from [donor] Robert Cummins through CTAP for the benefit of the RPM in order to avoid disclosure. Although Mr. Sutton’s actions in this regard were intentional and criminal sanctions are available, the Board leaves the decision as to whether a criminal investigation should be undertaken to the appropriate County Attorney.”

Sutton dismissed the findings with a brief statement in his blog: “I am disappointed with the findings of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board concerning the Republican Party of Minnesota and Count Them All Properly, Inc.  I disagree with their findings and believe they should have reached a different conclusion.”

Sutton’s response irritated many party supporters who understand that even with the clean sweep provided by new leadership, the state GOP will recover slowly. Along with financial rebuilding and faction re-uniting, the party that promotes fiscal responsibility must distance itself from a now well-documented history of unwise spending and financial sloppiness.