As Gov. Tim Pawlenty appears to explore a presidential run, much of what he is doing occurs out of the public eye.
An intricate set of state and federal laws gives potential presidential candidates wide latitude, allowing them to avoid disclosing much information.
No federal law, for instance, requires Pawlenty to make public whether he has begun raising money to explore a 2012 campaign -- an effort that received at least a modest boost over the weekend, when he was in a four-way tie for second in a GOP presidential straw vote at the Values Voter Summit in Washington.
While he has made speeches in San Diego, Chicago, Florida and elsewhere, those events do not appear on his public schedule. His campaign office does not put out a schedule of the governor's political events.
"There is something called Google now, or Bing -- you can Bing," Pawlenty said during a recent interview, referring to Internet accounts of his appearances and planned trips.
He declined a Star Tribune request for a more detailed daily appointments calendar that would list all meetings and trips, arguing that he is not legally required to make it public.
So while his public schedule showed him attending the Minnesota Pork Producers' "Capitol Pork Cookout" on July 1 at the State Capitol, Common Cause Minnesota said the governor's office never responded to its June request that he disclose his meetings with lobbyists regarding state budget cuts.
Pawlenty's official public schedule was blank for 28 weekdays from June through August, though he made numerous trips and national talk show appearances during that time.
Don Gemberling, a lawyer and the former longtime head of a state agency that oversaw public records requests, said that spotty, sometimes after-the-fact, Internet accounts are no substitute for a comprehensive calendar of activities.
"It's not the equivalent of what the statute assumes ought to be there for the public to understand what the hell its government is doing," Gemberling said.
State law allows government employees to keep their appointments calendars private, but Pawlenty's office says that it also shields the calendar of the state's top elected official.
University of Minnesota Prof. Jane Kirtley, an attorney who teaches media ethics and law, said that "it's a stretch" for Pawlenty to claim employee status in refusing to release his calendar. But, she said, imprecise language in the state Data Practices Act allows "this kind of opportunistic use."
Pawlenty's stance is at odds with Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau's decision to release her full calendar in 2007. While many days lacked any entries, the calendar listed meetings with her staff and Pawlenty, an appearance on local television and a session in her office with a state transportation counterpart from Oklahoma. A spokesperson for Molnau said the calendar's entries covered everything from dental appointments to routine briefings.
Calendars of public officials can be very revealing about how they are spending their time -- officially and unofficially. In South Carolina this year, the Associated Press requested the official calendars of Gov. Mark Sanford. Those showed undisclosed trips paid for by supporters. (Those allegations were eclipsed by earlier revelations that Sanford was traveling to Argentina and having an affair.)
In March, a Chicago-area nonprofit analyzed disclosure laws for five Midwestern states, concluding that "Minnesota's complex web of state laws and regulations governing public information makes usage by average citizens virtually impossible."
The study, by the nonpartisan Citizen Advocacy Center, said that Pawlenty "has developed a questionable record in filing and preserving records," and has taken "a more limited view on what records to keep than former Minnesota governors."
The Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, also nonpartisan, gives Minnesota an "F" for its legislative disclosure requirements, saying it finished 40th among the 50 states.
Since announcing in June that he would not seek a new term, Pawlenty has traveled the country speaking to Republican organizations. He has gotten a political spokesman, former George W. Bush White House aide Alex Conant.
But getting the details about who pays for all of that is elusive.
Conant says that all of Pawlenty's expenses are paid by the groups to which he is speaking. But the Michigan Republican Party refused to say who will pay for a Pawlenty appearance at its function later this month. "Contact your governor's office," said Jennifer Hoff, the party's spokeswoman.
Among those who recently helped Pawlenty is Greg Mueller, president of a Washington-area public relations firm that has worked for major Republican Party organizations. The firm also reportedly was involved in the 2004 Swift Boat media campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry.
Conant said that Pawlenty has not raised any money to explore a run for president. But if the governor eventually does so, he could legally avoid disclosing the contributions and expenses to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the agency that oversees compliance with campaign finance laws.
'Testing the waters'
Prospective candidates are exempt from reporting requirements that apply to candidates.
Such candidates who are "testing the waters" can, according to the FEC, conduct polls, travel and make phone calls to determine their viability. The FEC has determined that the line into full-fledged candidacy is crossed when the individual raises "more money than what is reasonably needed to test the waters," or conducts activities over "a protracted period of time or shortly before the election."
Prospective candidates sometimes disclose contributions to the IRS if they seek a tax break, but don't need to until donations exceed $25,000 in a year.
Conant denied that Pawlenty is testing the waters. That distinction would allow him to accept larger individual amounts, so long as his trips are regarded as mere party-building. Pawlenty could also accept contributions from corporations or unions that otherwise would be forbidden, although there is nothing to indicate that he has done so.
Paul Ryan, an attorney who specializes in federal elections issues at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said attorneys tell politicians to avoid talking about a possible candidacy, because "you can raise as much money as you are able ... and not have to deal with the FEC."
Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, said that individuals or corporations paying for travel for someone to explore a candidacy probably would not have to report it to the board unless the payments involved registered lobbyists.
"How much would show up on a [state] campaign finance report?" Goldsmith asked. "Probably, none."
Star Tribune staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673