In the weeks leading up to the November election, millions of dollars poured into mailers and ads in the many competitive political races across Minnesota.
With the races decided on election night, the spending stopped, and groups that funneled money in had nearly three months to tally up their spending for the whole year and report it to the state — a requirement that helps Minnesota’s citizens know who’s spending money to influence the state’s elections.
Most groups followed the rules, filing with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board (CFB) before the deadline on Jan. 31.
But when the news stories came out in early February counting up what should have been a complete picture of the money spent trying to influence the election, there was a notable omission: the report from the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a pro-business committee that tends to spend big in favor of Republican candidates.
It was filed 15 days late, on Feb. 15.
It wasn’t the first time the Jobs Coalition missed the deadline. The group has been fined for filing late four times since 2014, according to the CFB.
Their punishment? A grand total of $825 in fines in the last five years: pocket change next to the nearly $1.9 million the group spent, largely to sway elections, in 2018, according to its filing.
Cost of doing business?
John Rouleau, the treasurer of the Jobs Coalition, didn’t pick up phone calls at a number listed on filings or answer emails this week, to answer questions about the late reports.
But it’s pretty safe to say the group didn’t just forget to file.
CFB staff puts out several reminders to campaigns that reports are coming due or are past due, said Jeff Sigurdson, the board’s executive director. They send a first class letter noting the deadline of Jan. 31 for the year-end summary of money raised and spent. Two weeks before that deadline, staff sends out an email reminder. Three days before, another email is sent.
In addition, the software the board provides for filing sends pop-up reminders to campaign treasurers. The Minnesota Jobs Coalition uses that software.
Around noon on deadline day, all available staff begins calling campaigns that haven’t yet turned in reports. This year, Sigurdson said staff members made 200 calls in an attempt to bring in as many reports as possible.
If reports are still missing 10 days after the deadline, the CFB sends committees a certified letter informing treasurers that fines are accumulating. This year, 49 campaigns and committees received such letters, out of 1,334 political party organizations, campaigns and political funds required to file.
The late fee begins accumulating the day after the deadline. But while it might be significant for small campaigns, the $25 fine per business day for the year-end report and $50 per day for reports due in the midst of the campaign, might not trouble political committees that raise and spend hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of dollars.
And fines stop once they reach $1,000, though the board can impose an additional civil penalty of $1,000. The fines were last raised in 2012. If a committee still doesn’t file, the board can ask the state attorney general to go to court to seek an order. But there are no additional monetary fines available in the law.
“There is such a substantial difference between the volunteer treasurer working on some candidate’s campaign, when they get a $500 late fee, they’re upset because it takes them quite a long time to raise $500,” Sigurdson said. “Obviously a larger organization or political fund may not see that as much.”
After it filed on Feb. 15, the Jobs Coalition received a letter informing them that the CFB would fine them $275. In recent years, it was fined $25 for reporting late on the 2014 campaign, $325 for 2016, $200 for 2017 and now $275 for 2018.
“There’s a growing concern on the board — especially with the pre-primary and pre-general reports,” Sigurdson said. Those are providing information in mid-campaign that could be of value to voters.
The year-end report comes long after elections are settled. But given the deadlines for pre-election filing, lots of money can be raised and spent before the election that isn’t reported until well after. That is, the year-end report is not just an accumulation of data already reported throughout the campaign year.
“It could help keep a committee off of some sort of year-end summary by just being a few weeks late,” he said. “I think there is a lot of concerns on the board that it could just be a cost of doing business. The delay could obviously frustrate disclosure, there’s no doubt.”
Where the money came from
Since the Jobs Coalition’s report wasn’t filed in time to make MinnPost’s year-end campaign finance roundup, here’s a look at where the group got its money and how it was spent.
The Jobs Coalition got $955,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national committee aimed at electing Republicans in state elections. Pro Jobs Majority, the Minnesota Chamber’s PAC gave the Jobs Coalition $285,000. More than $230,000, came from the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses, a business group whose mission is to “improve Minnesota’s quality of life by improving our business climate and strengthening our economy,” according to its website.
It got $140,000 from the affiliated Jobs Coalition 501(c)(4), and other Republican-affiliated groups such as the Minnesota Action Network, a group chaired by former Sen. Norm Coleman, and Fight for Our Future PAC also contributed. The Jobs Coalition got $70,000 from the campaign of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who ran for his old job but lost the primary to Jeff Johnson.
It also took in donations from the Minnesota Grocers Council and from dental societies across the state.
Where the money went
The bulk of the money the Jobs Coalition spent in 2018 went to independent expenditures in Minnesota House races.
Independent expenditures are dollars spent to influence elections by groups not affiliated with campaigns who are not allowed to coordinate with candidates.
Most of that money was spent in high-stakes suburban House seats that saw lots of spending from other groups, too. But rather than send election communications to boost the GOP candidate, most of the money was spent attacking the DFL rival.
The Jobs Coalition spent $147,000, for example, in Blaine’s 37B to attack Democrat Amir Malik in an effort to help incumbent Republican Nolan West hold onto the seat (West was successful in that effort).
It spent nearly as much, $135,000, in Spring Lake Park’s 37A, to attack DFLer Erin Koegel in an attempt to help the Republican candidate Anthony Wilder win. Koegel retained the seat.
It spent $108,000 in Savage-area 56A to help incumbent Republican Drew Christensen win by attacking DFLer Hunter Cantrell (Cantrell won) , and $107,000 in 57A, the open Apple Valley seat, against the Democrat to help Republican Matt Lundin win. The seat stayed in DFL hands with a Robert Bierman win.
Of the 18 races where the coalition spent the most money, the Republican candidate was successful in just four.
With updated numbers, the Jobs Coalition ranks 8th for independent expenditures among outside spending groups, fourth among groups that tend to spend to help Republicans.