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Lawmakers probe into campaign data problems

Posted by: Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Updated: December 16, 2013 - 5:18 PM

Minnesota lawmakers on Monday probed into the problems in the state's long inaccurate online campaign finance data.

"We are here as a direct result of some reporting done by the Star Tribune and others about some discrepancies in the numbers reported by the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board," said House Election Committee chair Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins. "We are here to do is to understand the dimension of the problem."

At a time when millions are pouring into suddenly expensive campaigns, the Star Tribune discovered that one in seven electronic records of donations are incorrect. The faulty records, dating to 2001, 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.

Before a joint House-Senate committee on Monday, campaign finance board executive director Gary Goldsmith offered lawmakers some explanations for how to data may have ended up including so many mismatches and pledged various changes that could correct problems going forward. At its regular meeting on Tuesday, the campaign finance board's appointed members will discuss potential improvements.

The Star Tribune's findings, published last month, have already prompted action.

The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board quickly took some information down from its web site and alerted 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.

The appointed board members who govern the state's campaign finance agency also instructed staff to correct the state's electronic records as soon as possible. Five of six of the board members appeared at the legislative hearing on Monday.

Earlier this year, the state approved more money for the campaign finance agency, which advocates say has long been underfunded given the task it must do. That budget increase may allow improvements to the electronic database and website, which is more difficult to use than those in other states.

"The Campaign Finance Board’s website is outdated and 'does not follow conventional practices''" Sherri Knuth, policy and outreach manager for the League of Women Voters Minnesota wrote in a memo for the Legislature in advance of Monday's hearing.

During the hearing, lawmakers made very clear they want to campaign regulatory agency to improve the website to give Minnesota citizens more access to campaign information.

"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, chair of the Senate's election subcommittee.

Photos: Senator Katie Sieben DFL-Newport and Rep. Steve Simon DFL-Hopkins, questioned Gary Goldsmith, executive director of Minnesota's Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.  He testified before a joint hearing about the inconsistencies the Star Tribune found in the state's electronic campaign finance data. GLEN STUBBE * gstubbe@startribune.com 

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