In an unusual move, the Minnesota Republican Party’s executive committee is preparing to question GOP Chair Tony Sutton about whether he used party resources and exploited his position to lobby on behalf of a tribal gambling organization.
The committee meets May 19 and is expected to ask Sutton about the use of the party’s list of email addresses.
The move was prompted by complaints raised last week by party members after delegates to the GOP’s state convention began receiving emails from Citizens Against Gambling Expansion (CAGE), an advocacy group headed by former national Republican committeeman Jack Meeks. Sutton and his wife, Bridget, serve as unpaid members of the group’s board of directors.
The emails sounded an alarm within the party’s executive committee because delegate email lists are carefully guarded and limited to party use only.
In an interview this morning, Sutton strongly denied that he had any role in CAGE acquiring the email list.
“Not from us, not from the Republican Party. Period,” he said. “They did not get lists from the Republican Party of Minnesota.”
CAGE gets financial support from the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association (MIGA), which advocates on behalf of Indian tribes, who vigorously oppose any expansion of gambling that would result in competition with Indian-owned casinos.
Sutton also denied he has an association with the MIGA. “I have never lobbied and have never taken money from the MIGA,” he said.
John McCarthy, executive director of the MIGA, also denied that the group has an association with Sutton or Sutton’s consulting firm, Winning Strategies.
But he acknowledged that the MIGA is a contributor to CAGE and has a contract for public relations and grass-roots work with a firm with which Sutton’s group has a business alliance, Public Affairs Company, owned by GOP operative Steve Knuth.
Of that relationship Sutton said: “I’m not going to discuss anything [to do] with Steve Knuth except that I would never work against the Republican platform.”
The use of the delegate e-mail list comes at a critical period. Many Republican legislators are supporting proposals to expand gambling beyond Indian-run casinos this session and there has been intense lobbying on the issue. In that political climate, an unauthorized use of the delegate email list could raise ethical questions.
In the email signed by Meeks dated May 3 — just a day before legislative committee hearings on a racino plan to expand gambling — delegates and precinct chairs were asked to pressure their legislators to oppose the idea.
“We need your help to make sure our elected officials know that our future fiscal stability should not include Racinos, or any other form of expanded gambling,” Meeks wrote. The email included links to members of the legislative committees.
John Gilmore, a St. Paul attorney who is a Basic Political Organizing Unit chair for the GOP, received two emails, one generated from the delegate list, the other from a list of unit chairs.
“My concern is that the access to that information is used in a politicized way within the party,” he said.
As to the Indian gaming association support of CAGE and any other client relationship linked to the party’s executive structure, Gilmore repeated what he has said in his blog, Conservative Minnesotans: that the party’s philosophical opposition to gambling expansion is tainted by the financial support that the MIGA gives to CAGE.
“It’s a scam,” he said. “I don’t like to use that word but I don’t know what else you call it. You’re speaking virtuously on one level and you’re profiting on another. You’re being paid by the Indian Gaming Association to be a front group.”
In an interview, McCarthy from the MIGA responded: “The rules seem to apply differently when it comes to Indians. There’s a ton of different relationships when it comes to lobbying.”
The issue of expanding gambling in Minnesota has evolved from an intra-party disagreement on the state GOP platform to a new front in the culture wars. The platform contains a plank added in 2006 opposing the expansion of gambling. It contradicts an earlier platform plank — still in effect — that opposes the Indian monopoly on gambling.
As party chair, Sutton has sent out increasingly passionate pleas to the party faithful. “The current gambling expansion schemes are cozy deals between private companies and the government where, essentially, state government is demanding a piece of the action in return for protection from competition and state interference” he wrote in a recent newsletter. “That is not free market.”
Sutton did not disclose in the newsletter missive his relationship to CAGE but Sutton’s involvement with the organization is widely known among party leaders and insiders, although likely less so among the rank and file.
Last month, GOP National Committeewoman Pat Anderson was asked to resign her party post by Deputy Party Chair Michael Brodkorb because, as a lobbyist, she had taken on Canterbury Downs as a client to advocate for casino-style slot machines at the track. Brodkorb said this represented a conflict of interest because the party platform opposes expanding gambling. Anderson fired back that it was the party platform itself that had the conflict and suggested calls for her to step down were hypocritical.
Executive committee member Bill Jungbauer of Mendota Heights has advised his colleagues to do the in-fighting in private but acknowledges that there are nagging questions over access to the delegate email list and the role of the Indian gaming group in party communications.
“I’ve been in communications with our executive members,” he said. “We have things to discuss.”
Sutton already has part of his response on the record. “Unlike others, my position has been very clear both prior and after my election” as party chair,” he said. “As a practical matter, I have spent very little time on outside activities. My dander gets up when I’m bustin’ my hump for our endorsed candidates, for our party platform and there are other people who for financial reasons have another agenda.”
The controversy surrounding Sutton comes less than a month after he was elected party chair without opposition.