Some DFL opponents of House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher in the race for governor are crying foul over a move that may have violated campaign finance laws, but officials with Kelliher's campaign and the DFL Party say it was an honest mistake that they reconciled.
The issue revolves around a voter database that the candidates for governor can use to raise money and build support for the party endorsement. Some of the campaigns paid the state DFL party for the right to use the database, but Margaret Anderson Kelliher's campaign asked to do something different, and that's where the story gets complicated.
Kelliher wasn't available to comment but her campaign manager Jaime Tincher said she contacted the DFL Party a few months ago to see whether it was OK for donors to pay for Kelliher's access to the file.
"The legal reading from the party to me was that we could 'donor direct' to pay for the voter file and then they got back to me and said 'actually, after further review we can't do that," Tincher said.
“It's the responsibility of both Speaker Kelliher and the party to play by the rules.”State Rep. Paul Thissen
DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez said party officials initially thought the process was legal. But he said he asked attorneys to look into it after another candidate, state Rep. Tom Rukavina, confronted him about it. Melendez said party attorneys then told him that it was, in fact, illegal.
"What we've done is unwound those transactions," Melendez said. "The speaker has now replaced the donor money with money directly from her campaign treasury so she's fully paid up on her fees for the voter file and we're refunding the money to the donors who gave it to us."
Kelliher's campaign manager Jaime Tincher, who worked for the DFL Party during the 2006 and 2008 elections, said the campaign is now paying for the use of the file with campaign funds.
Several of the other DFL candidates for governor say they are upset about the situation. State Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook said he's concerned that party officials are picking favorites before DFL activists endorse a candidate next year.
"We're all out working really hard everyday, by going to all kinds of forums and contacting delegates and trying to raise money," Bakk said. "I think the assumption on everybody's part is that we all have an equal chance to secure the endorsement. If you don't, and the process is rigged, why would you make the commitment to abide by the endorsement if it's not a fair process."
Bakk also wants to know how many donations the party gave back as a result of the mistake. The DFL's Brian Melendez said he didn't know and wouldn't give out the information if he did know. Jaime Tincher, with Kelliher's campaign, said "a couple of people" contributed to the fund but didn't offer any more specifics.
Another DFL candidate, state Sen. John Marty, said he wants to know why Kelliher's campaign would direct donors to pay for its use of the voter file instead of accepting the funds and paying for it on their own. He said state law limits the candidates for governor to accept only $100,000 from Political Action Committees and lobbyists in non-election years.
"I can't think of any reason you would say 'If you want to help me give it to somebody else,'" Marty said. "The only reason I can think one wants to do that is if they're approaching the limits on how much we can accept from that source of money. In other words, to circumvent the contribution limits and that's what I'd be extremely concerned about."
Tincher, with Kelliher's campaign, said the campaign wasn't circumventing the limit. She said they gave donors a range of options to contribute.
State Rep. Paul Thissen said party officials and Kelliher's campaign should have known better.
"It's the responsibility of both Speaker Kelliher and the party to play by the rules," Thissen said. "I hope going forward that we have a fair process because that's what the people deserve."
For his part, DFL Party Chair Melendez said the party isn't picking favorites and said it was a "cheap shot" for any candidate to suggest it. He said the party gave Kelliher's campaign advice only after they asked for it.
"The fact that they say 'Can we do this?' We give them a yes or no answer. It's not our job to coach them about strategy," Melendez said. "That's their job. We just tell them whether they can do it or not. In this case, it turned out we couldn't' so we had to tell everybody no.
"We thought we could and when we were under that misimpression, we would have told everybody yes. But it's not our job to tell them what questions to ask or what things they should try to do," he said.
Melendez said he doesn't think that the issue will taint the endorsement for governor. But, he said some of the candidates who lose the endorsement may use it as an excuse.