Minnesota lawmakers on Monday told the state’s campaign finance agency that it must move quickly to improve the accuracy and accessibility of state records on campaign donations.
“What’s at stake is making sure that the public knows who is giving and who is getting,” said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, chairman of the House Election Committee.
That’s not happening now, campaign reform advocates testified Monday at a special legislative hearing.
Jeremy Schroeder, executive director and lobbyist for Common Cause Minnesota, called the current website “woefully inadequate.”
Improving the electronic data is “key to transparency,” said Sherri Knuth, policy and outreach manager for the League of Women Voters Minnesota.
Monday’s hearing followed a Star Tribune analysis that found that one in seven electronic records of donations tracked by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board is incorrect. The errors stem from one group reporting having given donations that the recipient did not report getting or the reverse.
The faulty records mean that groups may have donated as much as $143 million or as little as $122 million, depending on which side of the ledger is to be believed.
“What we are here to do is to understand the dimension of the problem,” Simon said.
After the Star Tribune’s analysis, the appointed board members, who govern the campaign agency, also instructed the staff to correct the state’s electronic records as soon as possible. Campaign Finance Board executive director Gary Goldsmith will make his first official report on that progress Tuesday.
For now, the board’s website alerts visitors using the searchable database that the information they find may be wrong. “This data has not been verified or audited,” visitors are now warned in part of a lengthy disclaimer.
On Monday, Goldsmith told legislators that the agency would work to improve the records going forward. Among the changes: Starting next year, the agency will audit any data entered manually into the electronic records.
Goldsmith said the agency staff routinely catches instances when a donor and a campaign report different donation amounts. “Unreconciled transactions are pretty rampant when the reports come in. This has nothing to do with the Campaign Finance Board, but rather the treasurers who are filing the reports with us,” Goldsmith said.
He said in 2012 year-end reports, the regulatory agency found 3,300 problems. Nearly a year later, he is still working with campaigns to fix those problems. But in the past, many of those fixes never made it online. That will change in the future, he said.
Goldsmith said that next year the agency also may ask lawmakers for more authority to force treasurers to fix problems uncovered by regulators.
Five of the board’s six members sat in the audience Monday.
“The board is very active right now. And that’s good,” said Neil Peterson, a former Republican House member who now sits on the board.
Earlier this year, the state approved more money for the campaign finance agency, which advocates say has long been underfunded, given the scope of its duties. That budget increase will allow improvements to the electronic database and website, which is more difficult to use than those in other states.
“It’s especially essential that we make sure that our campaign finance databases are transparent, accessible, searchable … to the general public,” said Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, chairwoman of the Senate’s election subcommittee.