Top Senate Republicans violated state election law by using taxpayer dollars to print campaign materials, a judicial panel has ruled.

GOP caucus members, including Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem and Steve Sviggum, the caucus communications director, were slapped with more than $1,000 in fines over the thousands of pamphlets that popped up in Republican precincts across the state during the February caucuses.

Republicans argued that the text on the pamphlets -- praising the accomplishments of the GOP-led Senate -- was screened by Senate counsel to ensure it met state election law. But DFLers, who filed the complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings, pointed out that ordinary legislative updates do not include a link to a Republican fundraising site.

Late last week a three-judge panel ruled that the pamphlets, which were paid for out of the Republican caucus's taxpayer-funded budget, constituted "campaign material" and were intended to influence votes.

Distributed exclusively to Republican precincts, the handouts thanked voters "for joining this Republican precinct caucus," and noted that "the Senate Republican majority delivered for Minnesota." They included a link to the Senate GOP's campaign website, which featured a form to donate to Republicans.

In addition to Senjem, of Rochester, the following Republican senators each were fined $75 for distributing the pamphlets in their districts: President Michelle Fishbach, of Paynesville; Majority Whip Chris Gerlach of Apple Valley; Al DeKruif of Madison Lake, Gretchen Hoffman of Vergas; Benjamin Kruse of Brooklyn Park; Ted Lillie of Lake Elmo; John Pederson of St. Cloud; Claire Robling of Jordan; Ray Vandeveer of Forest Lake; and Pam Wolf of Spring Lake Park.

State DFL Chairman Ken Martin praised the ruling on Wednesday.

"The conclusion by the court affirms what we have been saying since February: The Senate Republican caucus broke the law when they decided to use our tax dollars to print partisan campaign literature," he said in a statement.

Sviggum, who was fined $200 for his role in signing off on the final design of the pamphlets, said he found the ruling "very, very disturbing," and warned that it will make it more difficult for lawmakers to communicate with their constituents.

"OAH's reading of the statue is not only wrong, it creates a dangerous precedent," he wrote in a handwritten response to the panel on Wednesday. "On a daily basis, elected officials send out press releases, editorials, radio clips, videos and mail to constituent groups both large and small. ... OAH has provided no guidance as far as at what point information distributed by elected officials is campaign material."

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049