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The analysis looked at transactions among Minnesota campaigns and groups, not donations from individuals or unregistered contributors. The contribution records examined by the Star Tribune equal about 40 percent of the $360 million that has flowed through state campaigns in the past decade.
The problems with the state’s data make it difficult to determine how much candidates donated to colleagues, parties and PACs. State records show that candidates’ committees have given $6.4 million, but the mismatched records suggest the actual amount could be $1 million higher.
Other interactions show far bigger discrepancies. Donations from political action committees to political parties could be as little as $34 million or as much as $40 million. The Star Tribune found a $2 million gap between what labor groups said they gave and what recipients said they got. The DFL and the Republican parties in the Minnesota show donations from their national parties that are off by millions of dollars, according to the electronic files.
Errors appear in all 10 years of records, but amounts diverged wildly in 2002. That year, the contributions from Minnesota groups to other Minnesota groups could have been as little as $16 million or as much as $31 million, based on electronic data, a difference of nearly 100 percent.
The campaign agency audits reports that candidates and political groups file. When the campaign watchdog finds errors, they will work to track the source of the errors and have the groups amend their reports.
If the agency manages to reconcile the reports, those fixes often do not appear in the electronic data the state makes available. Searching through scans of letters online, the Star Tribune found that the Republican House committee’s missing $10,802 contribution actually came from the committee’s federal campaign, not the state campaign. That discrepancy was not corrected in the searchable database. The Star Tribune found a $27,000 “transfer” in a report filed over the summer by the DFL House committee to the state party. But found no explanation for the expense, which doesn’t still show up in electronic files.
Another complication: Errors fixed in the database can be overridden when campaigns file amended reports. Goldsmith said the agency plans to address that and, in the wake of the findings, has already removed records of transfers among Minnesota groups that did not reconcile.
Goldsmith said he hopes to craft a legislative proposal that would add force and penalties for campaigns that do not quickly work with the board to fix errors.
According to agency policy, the official record of what campaigns and political groups give and gets is what is stored in paper files. By digging through those files, which can include 8 inches of paper for one political party for one year, the public could get a more accurate reading, officials said.
“That’s a chore, and it isn’t 100 percent accurate,” Goldsmith said.
Checking on each contribution to confirm its accuracy could take a lifetime.
“The pain for somebody to look into it is a concern,” said Marty, a state senator who has long watched political spending. “If you want a campaign finance system where people can track the flow of the money, we are not doing a very good job of it in this state.”
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