Today’s campaign fireworks: a battle over the byzantine complexities of campaign finance rules

They have different causes and nothing in common, other than being entangled in the byzantine complexities of campaign finance laws and guidelines.

They say they are both concerned about Minnesota’s future, but today in the tense present of a heated election campaign, Common Cause, which calls itself “nonpartisan,” and Minnesota’s Future, which is as Republican as you can get, duked it out with complaints, alleged violations, accusations, poster boards and flowcharts.

Yes, flowcharts.

It was enough to make any citizen’s head spin, eyes roll, ears flap and vocal chords shout: “Ain’t the funding of democracy in the 21st century grand!”

But the basics were this: Mike Dean, executive director of Minnesota Common Cause, the fairness-in-elections watchdog group that clearly is left-leaning, held a news conference to announce that his organization had filed three complaints with the Minnesota Campaign Finance Disclosure Board.

Common Cause alleges that a conservative group called Minnesota’s Future received money from a limited liability corporation called Minnesota’s Future LLC, which is not registered as a political committee of any sort in Minnesota.

Common Cause's Mike Dean outlines his campaign finance complaints.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Common Cause’s Mike Dean outlines his campaign finance complaints.

But, Dean says, the LLC received $428,000 from the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and then “funneled” it to the Minnesota Future independent expenditure committee. That’s a no-no.

There was a “clear intent” on the part of the RGA and Minnesota’s Future to avoid a section of Minnesota’s campaign disclosure law by using this “shell” LLC, Dean asserted.

It’s not that we don’t know through filed documents that the RGA gave money to Minnesota Future. We do, right here on Page 9 of this filing (PDF) with the state.

It’s just that, according to Minnesota’s new disclosure law, Dean said, the RGA must disclose where its money came from. And the LLC shouldn’t be the channel.

(Question: Where do we think RGA money comes from? From Republicans!!!)

Here, by the way, is what Open Secrets says about who gave to the RGA. And here’s who gave to the Democratic Governors Association.

Of course, Dean was singling out the three conservative groups — and that was suspicious enough for the assembled group of journalists at Dean’s Capitol news conference.

So, he was put on the spot because his complaint didn’t include a left-leaning group, such as Win Minnesota, which fulsomely funds the Alliance for Better Minnesota, which has been airing anti-Tom Emmer ads infinitum … one could say. And Win Minnesota, according to campaign filings, received $250,000 from the Democratic Governors Association, and there’s no original source disclosures there.

But Win Minnesota, unlike Minnesota Future LLC, is duly registered with the state and has followed the law, even if it is just as aggressively attempting to outcome the election.

So, what’s the problem?

Common Cause was part of a coalition that put into place a terrific disclosure law at the end of the last legislative session, one that attempted to take on the concerns raised after the U.S. Supreme Court through its Citizens United ruling allowed corporations to contribute to political campaigns. Out of that decision was born MN Forward, and the Target contribution to MN Forward and the entire Tom Emmer-gay-rights-Target-boycott controversy.

Dean linked the RGA and Minnesota Future LLC’s “brazen attempt to circumvent Minnesota’s disclosure law” to these organizations reacting to the Target brouhaha and MN Forward’s hard PR hits.

No matter how biased the Common Cause complaint might seem, Dean might have something when he says, “If you violate campaign finance laws, you’re going to be held accountable,” or, at least, that was the message he wanted to carry tday.

But he seemed to be nitpicking. This muddled his point. Common Cause does fine work and seeks transparency in campaign funding, an important issue, to be sure. And Dean acknowledged that groups all along the political spectrum play campaign finance games. But his complaint and presentation today wasn’t well explained and had everyone scratching their heads or rubbing their chins.

Or, as Minnesota Public Radio’s Capitol reporter Tom Scheck asked Dean — with a quizzical look in his eye and some disbelief in his voice — “Why should a voter who’s worried about the economy, unemployment, the state budget care about the nuances whether Win Minnesota did a better job than Minnesota Future in terms of disclosing or hiding this money?”

One figures we should care because the campaign finance industry is out of control, but the intricacies escape most citizens’ understanding or attention span.

Out of the Common Cause haze, from the back of Room 125 at the Capitol, emerged Chris Tiedeman, a longtime Republican operative and now chairman of Minnesota Future.

Minnesota Future's Chris Tiedeman defends his group's financial reporting.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Minnesota Future’s Chris Tiedeman defends his group’s financial reporting.

He said Minnesota Future is “confident” it followed the law. Yes, all of its money came from the LLC, “but there is nothing improper” coming from the LLC. He said the origin of RGA’s money need not be reported, by his reading of the law.

He called Common Cause “a DFL front group, trying to shut down our legitimate right to participate in this political process, which should be done with more speech, not less.” Of the complaint, he said: “Frankly, it’s a joke.”

He handed out a bunch of flowcharts that showed money coming from DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton’s family to the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, and flowing to and from and around and through Win Minnesota and unions and Indian tribes.

And he wondered who contributes to Common Cause? A form he displayed didn’t disclose its contributors. That question then rattled around the conservative Twittosphere.

The Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board is set to meet Tuesday. Tiedeman said he expects the board to dismiss the complaints. Dean said he’s confident Common Cause will prevail.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/30/2010 - 06:27 pm.

    Yes! I want plenty of free speech when it comes to political campaigns, but what I’d most like to see is equalized free speech in the form of a Constitutional Amendment to require strict time limits and public financing of all campaigns for national public office (president/vice president, senate, house of representatives). This would give us a much better chance of electing candidates based on who has the best ideas, rather than just on who has the most gifted commercial writers and producers and the most money for media buys.

    But lacking that, I at least want to know EXACTLY who’s paying to try to get a particular candidate into office because that provides the best possible clues as to whose interests that candidate has already promised to (or implied, behind the scenes, that they will) serve if elected.

    So… who was it that contributed the money to the Republican Governor’s Association to support Mr. Emmer’s candidacy here in Minnesota? Was it a wide variety of scattered people or one or two very wealthy individuals, perhaps the same ones that are paying to keep the Tea Party folks all riled up?

    Were they the types who are trying to buy the kind of influence that will enrich themselves or the type trying to buy the kind of influence through which they can help the poor and less fortunate?

    Despite the skeptical tone of this article, such information is VERY relevant.

  2. Submitted by Jay Weiner on 09/30/2010 - 10:59 pm.

    Here is who gave to the RGA, according to Open Secrets:

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/01/2010 - 08:20 am.

    We will never get campaign reform from pols who got where they are by working the system we have.

  4. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 10/01/2010 - 02:31 pm.

    I agree completely with Greg. I don’t know either how one overcomes the power of money used allow unaccountable funding of elections. Arizona tried it and it worked well according to reporrts. But then–and I missed this story earlier–“the U.S. Supreme Court derailed a key part of Arizona’s campaign financing system on Tuesday, preventing the state from giving extra money to publicly funded candidates facing privately funded rivals and changing the election rules in the thick of primary season.”

    Which means our supreme court has stopped Arizona from disbursing so-called matching funds, unless and until it decides whether to hear the opponents’ full appeal. Which means that publicly funded candidates are short of money and trying to raise enough to fill the gap.
    But Arizona did manage to get publicly funded campaigns and I had read that it was working well. So it’s possible–if we could just get the supreme court to quit acting on behalf of the conservatives-republicans.

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/01/2010 - 06:01 pm.

    Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation gave big bucks ($100 million each, I believe) to the Republican Governors Association and the National Chamber of Commerce. Looks like some of his donation was routed to our Mr. Emmer.

  6. Submitted by Luke Ferguson on 10/02/2010 - 03:32 pm.

    To Tom Scheck: Average Joe should care because if his boss is making a big enough profit to give money to Republicans so they can lower corporate taxes, maybe Joe deserves a raise.

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/02/2010 - 03:46 pm.

    Correction to #5:

    I double-checked and see that one million each from Murdoch’s company is the correct figure. Sorry.

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