A Democratic-leaning government watchdog group filed a complaint with federal election officials Wednesday alleging the Republican Party of Minnesota violated campaign finance laws by hiding debt.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington criticized the Federal Election Commission for not conducting a full-blown audit of the state GOP back in 2007 when problems first surfaced. The group says the FEC’s “botched” investigation allowed former party chairman Tony Sutton to continue to lie to federal election officials. The complaint asks the FEC to refer the matter to the justice department for a criminal investigation.

“The Republican Party of Minnesota’s FEC reports haven’t reflected the party’s actual financial condition for nearly a decade and make a mockery of the public’s right to know,” said the group's executive director, Melanie Sloan. “There appears to be ample evidence Mr. Sutton repeatedly lied to FEC investigators for years to achieve the party’s political goals.”

Minnesota Republican officials said they are doing all they can to resolve the newly-discovered problems.

The watchdog group filed a similar complaint against the party in 2007, which resulted in a $170,000 fine last summer. Around the same time, party officials filed an agreement with the FEC vowing to clean up its record-keeping.

Sutton abruptly resigned his $100,000-a-year post last month as criticism mounted about the party’s growing debt and untamed spending.

After Sutton resigned, party leaders discovered the party debt was far worse than previously known, reaching $2 million, including bills from the 2010 gubernatorial recount.

At the end of December, GOP officials held a news conference to say they found $415,211 in debt that had never been reported to the federal government, as required by law.

“If the commission had done its job, we wouldn’t have to ask them to restart yet another botched investigation,” Sloan said. “Allowing such conduct to go unpunished reinforces the public’s view that politics is a dirty, rigged game. The FEC continues to fail the American public.”

Newly-elected Repubilcan Party Chairman Pat Shortridge said party leaders immediately reported the issues to election offiicials when they discovered the unreported debt.

“Following on that disclosure, we contacted the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) to self report that debt and seek guidance on how we should proceed," he said in a statement. "We are in the process of following those recommendations.”



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