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Wellstone Action pushing out senator's sons

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David Wellstone
David Wellstone
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2012

Updated: 5 p.m. | Posted: 11:43 a.m.

A liberal campaign organization dedicated to the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone says it is pushing out the senator's two sons over differences in how the organization should run, but one of Wellstone's sons says the dispute is over financial irregularities.

Wellstone Action informed David and Mark Wellstone on Wednesday that they would be voted off the governing board in the coming days, following what group leaders described as months of friction. They said the Wellstones have pushed repeatedly to shift focus from training progressive candidates and campaigns to more aggressive issue advocacy following Donald Trump's election as president.

David Wellstone contends that Wellstone Action would not provide him and his brother financial audit information after the two raised concerns about missed budget targets and how donations to the organization were being spent. 

"I want to make sure that everything's done above board and up and up and so when you're not able to look at that it raises questions right? And so, then when you're told you're going to be tossed off the board it kind of raises more questions for you," he told MPR News.

Wellstone said attorney and Democratic donor Sam Kaplan is representing the brothers in the dispute and that he and his brother want their father's name removed from the organization. 

The board's statement also named Rick Kahn and Ron DeHarpporte as former board members. Kahn was Wellstone Action's treasurer.

Co-founder and board member Jeff Blodgett, who was Paul Wellstone's campaign manager, told The Associated Press the "necessary but sad step" of removing the brothers from the board comes after months of tension. He said the brothers have asked that the group no longer use the family name.

"It's difficult, personally and professionally for us," Blodgett said.

In a later written statement to MPR News, Blodgett denied any claims of financial impropriety.

"We take our fiscal responsibility very seriously as board members," Blodgett said. "Those claims are red herrings, perhaps to create a smokescreen around some other motives on their part. While we have always been confident in the financial management of the organization, we engaged an outside auditor to investigate the specific questions being raised to make sure. They found absolutely nothing wrong."

Blodgett added that the Wellstones, Kahn and DeHarpporte were asked to agree to a reasonable confidentiality agreement because much of the information included confidential payroll and personnel information. They apparently declined.

The Wellstone brothers and Blodgett formed Wellstone Action after Paul Wellstone's death in a plane crash days before the 2002 election. It has trained more than 90,000 candidates and campaign managers for races ranging from school boards to legislative and congressional offices. The organization's flagship program is Camp Wellstone, which holds three-day boot camps to train progressive candidates, campaign workers and organizers how to win office and make change.

Rep. Tim Walz, currently running for governor in Minnesota, was a school teacher with a National Guard background when he became one of its first trainees. A long list of alumni includes members of Congress from Illinois and Iowa, state legislators from New Mexico to New Hampshire and city councilors in Minneapolis and Baltimore.

Leaders at Wellstone Action say a difference of opinion has been building for the past year between the board and the brothers over what the organization's role should be.

Jessie Ulibarri, the group's interim co-executive director, said after Trump's 2016 victory the Wellstones began pushing for a more public role in issue advocacy. He wouldn't say what issues the Wellstones — and two former board members whose terms lapsed last year — believed the organization should take on.

Wellstone was in a close re-election fight when his plane crashed in rural Minnesota on Oct. 25, 2002, killing Wellstone, his wife Sheila and daughter Marcia, along with three aides and two pilots. The senator's death triggered an outpouring of grief, especially among his fellow liberal Democrats who mourned the void it left in their movement.

Blodgett said the organization can still honor Wellstone's memory without his family's input.

"The idea of helping people pick up where Paul and Sheila left off was the absolute best way to pass on the Wellstone legacy," he said.

MPR News reporter Mark Zdechlik contributed to this story.