Rybak partisan alleges McLaughlin fund abuse

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September 19, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Complaint says commissioner campaign money used for mayoral race

Ken Bradley, a Rybak partisan, questions whether McLaughlin used his Hennepin County Commissioner campaign funds to pay for mayoral campaigning during 2004, a possible election-law violation.

Bradley said McLaughlin wasn't up for reelection to his county commissioner seat in 2004, but he was spending as if he were. McLaughlin, who denies any impropriety, said his nonelection year spending was higher than usual because "I was actively engaged in helping with legislative elections."

County commissioners run on staggered terms. In 2004, the Friends for McLaughlin committee spent $24,797.84, according to county campaign finance records. That was more than two of the three county commissioners running for re-election -- Randy Johnson ($10,841.42) and Linda Koblick ($18,832.22). Only Penny Steele outspent McLaughlin ($27,493.63).

McLaughlin said Johnson, Koblick and Steele did not have serious challengers.

The other three commissioners not up for election in 2004 spent less than McLaughlin's $24,700-plus: Mike Opat ($4,560.80); Mark Stenglein ($18,175.21) and Gail Dorfman ($5,299.65). McLaughlin, Stenglein, Dorfman and Opat's seats are up for reelection in 2006.

In recent nonelection years, Friends of McLaughlin spent $14,343.18 in 2001 and $5,366.06 in 2003, though neither was a legislative election year. In 2004, McLaughlin spent more than during his 2002 run for re-election, when he spent $23,874.18 to beat Ed Felien 77.5 percent to 21.4 percent.

Bradley gave the Rybak campaign $100 this year and was his first campaign staffer in 2001. That did not motivate the complaint, he said. "I have been pretty passionate about campaign finance," he said.

Hennepin County lawyers could not say if it was illegal for a candidate to use funds from one campaign to run for a different office. Pat Diamond, Hennepin County's election law attorney said, "The answer to that question is up in the air."

(According to campaign-finance reports Diamond donated $150 to McLaughlin's mayoral campaign in July.)

Said Deputy Hennepin County Attorney Pete Cahill: "I can't give you a legal opinion on a hypothetical."

While Hennepin County officials may be unwilling to venture a guess on the law, one Minnesota expert says fund-shifting is illegal at the state level.

Jeanne Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, cited the hypothetical example of a state representative running for state auditor. If the state could prove the representative's campaign spent money on the auditor's race, the candidate's fund would be fined four times the expense, Olson said.

Bradley said both Ed Gross and Alicia Bennett told him they were working on McLaughlin's mayoral campaign in fall of 2004. The McLaughlin for Mayor Committee campaign fund was not established until Dec. 22. Its 2004 report listed an unpaid $750 bill to Gross and no outstanding bills to Bennett.

Friends of McLaughlin (the county campaign fund) paid Gross $5,000 for consulting in 2004 and Bennett $4,500 for database work and other assistance, its finance report said. Gross was paid on Oct. 7 and Nov. 17. Bennett was paid starting Sept. 22.

McLaughlin initially declined to comment on the complaint during a Sept. 9 interview because he had not seen it. He called it "a phantom" and "a chimera."

He said Bennett and Gross did not start working for his mayoral campaign until December. McLaughlin said his county campaign fund hired Bennett in 2004 to update the database after the 2004 precinct caucuses, "something that has to happen every year. She was helping me on campaign events for the Kerry campaign and legislative campaigns and providing me with assistance as I made my way around helping with elections," McLaughlin said.

"Ed [Gross] and I were talking about issues facing the community. Ed and I have a longstanding relationship back to Wellstone," he said.

Gross and Bennett both worked on the mayoral campaign in 2005: Gross got paid $25,500 for consulting between Jan. 14 and Aug. 29, according to its 2005 preprimary report. Bennett got paid $13,521 for field organizing between Jan. 21 and Aug. 1.

Asked if he had any concerns about the possible appearance of he might have used county campaign funds for his mayor's race, McLaughlin cut off the question.

"The only illegal activity here that I am aware of is the mayor using city money to print and distribute," a mayor newsletter that doubled as a campaign brochure, McLaughlin said.