For state GOP, 'serious concerns' pile atop debt

Party reports "questionable decision-making" by management.

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Pat Shortridge, chairman of the Minnesota GOP Party

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Minnesota Republican Party officials on Monday disclosed a recent history of "questionable decision-making and a lack of accountability" among "serious concerns" about the party's financial management.

In a new report, the party listed a litany of concerns: significant credit card charges, more than $120,000 in payments to Republican candidates and donors, $17,000 in payments to investigate medical marijuana, and questionable responsibility for a private corporation that still owes attorneys more than $719,000 from the 2010 gubernatorial recount.

The report, drafted by a dozen party insiders, comes as the state GOP is seeking to repair relations and its reputation after questions, rumors and leadership changes that buffeted it for more than a year. The party also has struggled with debt. It now owes about $1.3 million, whittled down from $2 million late last year, and was recently threatened with eviction from its headquarters in St. Paul.

"I think going forward we have a much better understanding of where things got off track," said party chairman Pat Shortridge. Shortridge was brought in late last year after former chairman Tony Sutton suddenly resigned, as some of the party's issues were revealed.

Despite the concerns, the report said it found no evidence of theft or fraud by anyone at the party at the time.

State inquiry

The report does not end the party's problems.

The state campaign finance board is investigating the party's finances, with a particular eye on the 2010 recount fund, known as Count Them All Properly, and whether the fund and the party violated campaign finance regulations. Count Them All Properly was set up as an independent corporation in late 2010 to pay for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer's recount costs. Emmer lost that election to DFLer Mark Dayton by 9,000 votes.

Meanwhile, Common Cause Minnesota said it plans to ask the Ramsey County attorney for a criminal investigation into the recount fund. Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause, said the party may know that further complaints could be coming because officials did not provide much detail about that fund in their report.

"They're saying: 'We are not going to provide any new information because our attorneys are telling us not to,'" said Dean.

According to a letter he has drafted to send to Ramsey County, Dean plans to mention a report in the Star Tribune indicating that two people who were listed as Count Them All Properly CEOs had never heard of the company they supposedly managed. He also suggests in the letter that the corporation provided illegal in-kind contributions to the Republican Party and to Emmer.

Former chairman Sutton said he and the party did nothing wrong with the corporation.

"All I did was follow the advice of our attorney, Michael Toner," Sutton said.

In response to the party's report, Sutton said, "Nobody is perfect. I made mistakes."

No conflicts, ex-chair says

But he said the party created no conflicts by paying state Rep. Mark Buesgens, who acted as Emmer's campaign manager, $11,200; party field representative Joe Schomacker $24,964 over two years, up through his election to the Legislature in 2010; paying donor and Washington County Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek $16,875 over two years, or paying now-state Sen. Dave Thompson $70,568 before and after he was elected to the Legislature.

Sutton also said there were no problems with sharply increased credit card bills the party received while he was chairman. The report noted that those bills rose from an average of $2,000 to $3,000 per month under the previous chairman to an average of $8,000 to $12,000, with a high of $18,500, under Sutton. The report underscored that it found those charges included no "improper activity."

Sutton said he stood by the outcome of his tenure. "I don't apologize for winning elections. I don't apologize for winning the House and Senate," he said.

The report leaves without much comment one unusual line item in the party's spending. According to the report, Republicans spent $10,502 in September 2010 and $7,500 in April 2011 to hire Tim Goar of TG Med to "do medical marijuana polling and research ... to determine the validity of that issue."

"Goar claims to have very few written reports and did not think he saved any of his work," the report said. "He did not produce anything to us."

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb

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