A Minnetrista campaign finance group, the city's mayor, two City Council members and a former candidate all have been ordered by an administrative law judge to pay penalties for failing to follow campaign finance laws.
The group, called Our Minnetrista, was ordered to pay a $2,000 penalty for failing to file campaign finance reports despite spending more than $750 in support of candidates. Council Member Pam Mortenson was ordered to pay $1,200, and Mayor Lisa Whalen, Council Member John Tschumperlin and former Council Member Patricia Thoele each were ordered to pay $600.
The matter has been referred to a prosecutor for possible criminal charges. The fines are due by Aug. 1, along with corrected financial reports.
Council Member Shannon Bruce, who filed the complaint after seeing large amounts of money spent on elections in the small west metro municipality (population 7,700), called the ruling a victory. But she said it doesn't resolve bigger concerns about checks on campaign finance laws, because there's little investigation or enforcement.
Bruce said the City Council members backed by Our Minnetrista have a majority on the council and vote as a bloc.
"When you don't have dissent and you don't have differing opinions, you have tyranny," she said.
Our Minnetrista was established for the 2014 election cycle by former Minnetrista Police Chief David Kolb and Karen Danielson to promote the election of Mortenson, Whalen and Thoele, according to the 22-page ruling. Whalen was running for mayor and the other two for at-large council seats. All three won.
In a statement, Whalen called the infraction a "technical" error and said that all the donations were reported, just not in the proper format.
"Hopefully we can now all move forward in a positive manner," she wrote. "We plan to continue to focus our efforts on working for the benefit of the residents of Minnetrista."
Our Minnetrista sought contributions on behalf of all three candidates and coordinated efforts with them. According to the ruling, "The candidates considered Our Minnetrista to be their campaign committee and Danielson to be their campaign treasurer. The candidates had no other campaign committees."
In an e-mail from 2014, Kolb said that he and Danielson had determined the best approach was to set up one account and file three campaign finance reports, one for each candidate. The judge noted that Our Minnetrista didn't file any campaign financial reports in its own name, and that therefore the group's campaign role was "concealed from the public."
Our Minnetrista didn't support or endorse any candidates in 2016, but two years later Danielson registered Our Minnetrista again and opened checking accounts for Mortenson and Tschumperlin called "Our Minnetrista Pam" and "Our Minnetrista John." The candidates considered those accounts to be their campaign committees.
Our Minnetrista then sent out letters supporting the candidates, saying they had the group's endorsement.
Attempts to reach some of the involved parties were not successful.