Minnesota campaign finance regulators' database isn't adding up

Database errors worth as much as $20 million over past decade make it difficult to track flow of donations.

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Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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The online files from the state agency charged with tracking candidate and campaign fundraising are riddled with inaccuracies, leading to errors that total as much as $20 million over the past decade, according to an analysis by the Star Tribune.

About 7,000 records of donations between Minnesota groups are incorrect — an error rate of about one in seven. Electronic records dating to 2001 show that such groups may have donated as much as $143 million or as little as $122 million. The flaws are enough to hamper any comprehensive attempt to examine the flow of political money in the state, at a time when that spending has soared to record heights.

Upon reviewing the Star Tribune’s analysis, Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board officials acknowledged that their data is damaged and said they are unsure how deep the problems go. After learning the findings, agency officials said they would overhaul their data policies and pulled some faulty information from their website immediately. The agency also has added a lengthy disclaimer on its website warning that the searchable data long featured online may not be accurate.

“We are a long ways from where we want to be,” said board member George Beck, a former administrative law judge and investigator.

The problems in the online records show how far the state must go before it can replace paper reports — considered the official record — with electronic information, a long-standing goal of campaign regulators.

“Good and positive changes are going to result from your work and your highlighting of the data issues that you found,” Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, told a Star Tribune reporter.

Officials have not previously made clear to hundreds of thousands of website visitors that millions of dollars might be unaccounted for in their database and appear to have been unaware of how flawed their electronic records were.

“It wasn’t as clear to us that this was happening as it is now,” Goldsmith told the board at a midweek meeting, shortly after learning of the Star Tribune’s findings. At the meeting, board members instructed staff members to update and correct electronic filings “as soon as possible.”

Legislators say they are surprised and disturbed by what the analysis revealed.

“It really is about the public’s right to know and have access to accurate information. I’d want to know more,” said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins and the chairman of the House Elections Committee.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said the campaign agency has been underfunded for years, preventing it from making needed updates. But, he said, the scope of problems revealed in the analysis makes it difficult to assess whether campaigns’ reports have been sloppy or whether some contributions were purposely left out by campaigns.

“It’s a very legitimate concern and one that is troubling to hear about,” Marty said.

Disconnected from reality

As they began their own analysis of the data, board staffers said the electronic data — which has been searchable online for at least seven years — has become disconnected from reality.

“I will certainly be the first to acknowledge that we, as staff, are not confident that the electronic data sufficiently represents the file data at this point,” Goldsmith told the board.

In reviewing more than 100,000 records, the Star Tribune found thousands of instances in which political groups reported receipt of a contribution that no group reported giving. Similarly, some groups reported giving donations that no group reported receiving.

In 2011, the Minnesota Republican Party reported receiving $10,802 from the Minnesota House Republican Campaign Committee. But there is no electronic record of the House committee’s contribution.

Last year, the DFL Central Committee reported a $27,000 contribution from the DFL House Caucus. It does not show up in the database.

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