Minn. GOP, former chairman fined over recount

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton, former chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, in 2010. Sutton, the party and a separate corporation face fines over the 2010 governor's race recount.
MPR File Photo/Tom Weber

The Minnesota Campaign Finance Board has imposed $33,000 in fines against the Republican Party of Minnesota, the former chairman of the party and the fund created to help with the gubernatorial recount in 2010.

The board found that party officials circumvented campaign finance law by creating a separate recount fund that was directed by former party Chairman Tony Sutton. The fines are the latest blow to the Republican Party of Minnesota, which is working to dig itself out of debt that reached nearly $2 million.

Minnesota Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Gary Goldsmith said the board found that the recount effort was conducted by the party and funding for it should have been disclosed.

"Minnesota statutes prohibit routing a contribution through some other entity for the benefit of yet a third, namely the Republican Party, for the purpose of avoiding disclosure," Goldsmith said. "And the board concluded that that is what in fact what Mr. Sutton had done in this case, and by extension the Republican Party."

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The board fined Sutton $3,000 for his actions. It also fined the Republican Party of Minnesota $26,900 and fined the fund, Count Them All Properly $3,100. It also required Count Them All Properly to register as a political fund and disclose its donors and spending by the end of the month.

There won't be much to report. Goldsmith said Bob Cummins, a major Republican donor who has pushed for the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and has given millions to Republican causes, is the only donor to the fund. He gave $30,000.

"They spent $27,000 paying Republican Party debt and they spent some others on general operating expenditures and presumably have some small amount left but not enough to pay the penalty imposed by the board, I don't believe," Cummins said.

Count Them All Properly was initially formed to raise money for the recount. But it also kept nearly $600,000 in attorneys' fees off Republican accounting books. That's significant because that made the party's debt appear smaller than it actually was. Sutton resigned his position as party chair last Winter after facing scrutiny over the party's finances. The party later revealed that it could be as much as $2 million in debt.

The investigation also found that the Republican Party's bookkeeping under Sutton was in shambles. They found that former Treasurer David Sturrock, who also resigned last December, maintained a "hands-off approach" even though he was responsible for the books. A party official also said he was directed by Sutton to not disclose certain spending -- a claim Sutton denied.

Sutton declined to comment when contacted by MPR News but issued a statement saying he was disappointed by the ruling.

On his blog, Sutton wrote, "I am disappointed with the findings by 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."

Goldsmith, of the Campaign Finance Board, said it's possible Sutton could also face criminal penalties for circumventing campaign finance disclosure rules.

The person who filed the initial complaint that launched the investigation says he'll push for criminal penalties against Sutton. Mike Dean of Common Cause Minnesota is planning to push for a broader criminal probe. He's pleased the board penalized the Republican Party of Minnesota and said it's an attempt to begin to hold the party accountable.

"It was critical for people to know that the Republican Party was in this debt," Dean said. "Not only for the public but also for party activists and disclosure laws really allow us to know what's going on."

Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge declined to comment but issued a statement saying the party has learned from its mistakes. Rick Weible, a member of the party's executive committee that pushed Sutton to reveal the party's true finances, said he feels the party is now taking the right steps.

"The party did find this internally and did report this and tried to make corrections to the best of our ability," Weible said. "We're still working with the state campaign finance board in trying to resolve and make the necessary corrections. We're not trying to hide anything here."

The campaign finance board said in its ruling that its work with respect to the party's financial and reporting activities will continue. Party officials are also working with the Federal Elections Commission. The party faces a similar complaint on the federal level with regards to its disclosure of spending.