Minnesota's legislative auditor on Thursday said Gov. Mark Dayton broke state law in bringing a campaign staffer along for a 2012 trip on the state plane to promote DFL candidates.
The auditor said Minnesota may want to clarify the law about political use of the plan and highlighted campaign staffer Julie Hottinger's October 2012 travel with Dayton as a violation of state law and Minnesota Department of Transportation policy.
"Since the campaign official did not travel with the Governor to participate in state government business, it was a violation of state law and MnDOT policy for the campaign official to travel on the state airplane,' the report said.
In response, Dayton's chief of staff Tina Smith pledged the governor would follow any new requirements and admitted the governor "was in error" when he allowed a campaign staffer to accompany him on the state plane shortly before the 2012 election.
"In regard to the trip to Bemidji and International Falls, a campaign staffer accompanied the Governor on the flight. This was an error and will not happen again," Smith said.
Dayton's use of the state plane has long been under scrutiny. The Star Tribune has written about it repeatedly since 2012, the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board examined his payments for it and the Republican-led Minnesota Jobs Coalition has formally complained about it.
Dayton's campaign has repaid the state for his political use of the plane. His administration has said in the past it has done nothing wrong and would wait for the state auditor's report for guidance.
In December, after the Jobs Coalition discovered that a campaign staffer accompanied Dayton on one of the 2012 trips, Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said: "It is appropriate for campaign staffers to travel with the governor to campaign events if that travel is paid for by the campaign."
The reimbursements for the 2012 flights had already been examined by one agency watchdog. In September, in response to a complaint from the Jobs Coalition, the state's campaign finance agency found that Dayton violated the law by not disclosing his campaign debt for his political use of the state plane.
In part because the media had reported on Dayton's plan to repay the state, the board decided that the lack of disclosure on campaign forms was inadvertent. Because the omissions were not made knowingly, the board decided the violation did not merit a fine.
The governor is up for re-election this year vying against a host of Republican candidates.
Previous governors have also been scrutinized for their private use of state resources but not, in recently history, for their plane travel.
In 1999, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura's use of state security protection while on his book tour was put under the microscope. There are no major records about Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who proceeded Dayton, using the state plane for political purposes. In 2008, Pawlenty did reimburse the state for $910 for mileage through his campaign committee.
Minnesota law, the legislative auditor noted, specifies that the governor and the lieutenant governor are exempt from restrictions on personal use of state vehicles. But "there is no comparable statue concerning the Governor's use of a state airplane," the auditor's report said. The auditor recommended the Legislature clarify the law regarding the use of the plane for politics.
Smith, the governor's chief of staff, said Dayton believes the state plane and its pilots are more reliable than those offered by charter companies and the state security officers preferred the governor use the state plane.
She said, unless instructed otherwise, Dayton would continue to use the state plane when he combines political and official travel and have his campaign repay the state on a prorated basis.
This post has been updated.