Pete Stauber once used his St. Louis County e-mail to seek damaging information about U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's voting history and forwarded negative information about another potential opponent to a Republican operative in Washington, according to e-mails released Tuesday by the county.
After arguing for months that the e-mails were private, St. Louis County was forced to release them after Judge Stoney Hiljus ordered the county to do so.
Stauber, the Republican nominee for Congress in the Eighth District, is a St. Louis County commissioner. He used his county e-mail to communicate with the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), which is the election arm of the House GOP caucus in Washington.
In his ruling, Hiljus decided in favor of the Minnesota DFL, which sued the county to get the e-mails after it rejected a Star Tribune request for the records earlier this year.
Stauber, a retired police officer, is in a tight race with Democrat Joe Radinovich, a former state House member. Nolan, a Democrat, is retiring at the end of his term. The district includes Duluth and northeastern Minnesota but stretches down to the northern exurbs of the Twin Cities.
Caroline Tarwid, a spokeswoman for Stauber, said he "respects the court's decision and the process just as he did when the county looked into this matter and found no wrongdoing."
The e-mails do not contain the kind of bombshell many Democrats hoped for, and in one of them Stauber tells a recipient to use his private e-mail address to communicate instead of his county address.
Still, a few of the e-mails show political activity, despite the St. Louis County's code of conduct, which reads, "Elected officials will not use St. Louis County equipment in support of their own campaigns for re-election, other candidates for public office, or political organizations."
After receiving notice that Nolan would be holding a regional meeting on veterans' issues, Stauber forwarded it to Mike Thom, the regional political director of the NRCC, writing, "Look at this. I need Nolan's anti-veterans votes to get people there," seemingly referring to Nolan's votes on veterans' issues.
In another instance, Stauber received an e-mail from Kirsten Kennedy, a Democrat who also ran for the seat. She reported to Stauber that she had seen a video of an event featuring Leah Phifer, another Democrat in the race, where some in the crowd could be heard laughing about injuries Stauber sustained in the line of duty as a police officer. Kennedy said she was "appalled." Stauber then forwarded the e-mail to an NRCC operative.
Radinovich's campaign manager Jordan Hagert released a statement: "These e-mails are clear evidence that Pete Stauber has been openly and knowingly violating the law and county policy to use taxpayer resources to advance his political agenda."
In response to the release of the e-mails, the NRCC put out a statement that called the e-mails "uninteresting" and criticized the campaign of Radinovich.
The e-mails also offer hints about the political maneuvering surrounding a decision by the administration of President Donald Trump to boost a northeastern Minnesota copper-nickel mining project sought by Twin Metals. The project is opposed by environmentalists because of its proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Stauber was forwarded an e-mail sent to his fellow commissioner, Keith Nelson, in which Nolan invites Nelson to a meeting in Virginia, Minn., in June 2017. The meeting was to also include U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer and Paul Gosar, the latter a powerful chair of the House subcommittee on energy and mineral resources who is viewed as strong advocate for mining interests.
"This meeting is invitation only with no press," says the invitation, written by Jeff Anderson, who is Nolan's chief of staff.
Jordan Metsa, a spokesman for Nolan, said the meeting was about the "proposed land withdrawal," and a chance for elected officials to discuss an issue of importance to their mutual constituencies.
Stauber forwarded the meeting invitation to the NRCC and added, "This is what I am talking about!!" It's not clear what he meant by that.
The Trump Administration announced in late 2017 that it was reversing an Obama-era decision and renewing exploratory leases for Twin Metals Minnesota.
Jeremy Drucker, a spokesman for Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement, "These e-mails clearly show that the plot to undermine the Boundary Waters began long ago."
Whatever the outcome of the election, the judge's decision this week is an important ruling in the realm of open records law.
Earlier in October, a state agency issued an advisory opinion stating the e-mails are public records and should be handed over. The county ignored the ruling.
The order did not elucidate the judge's reasoning but merely said the plaintiff "has the right to obtain or access the public data requested."