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Data problems persist in Minnesota campaign finance records

Posted by: Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Updated: January 7, 2014 - 12:03 PM

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Glenn Howatt

The Minnesota campaign finance agency disclosed on Tuesday that it had found $26 million worth of data problems in its records late last year.

The data errors were woven through the campaign records going back to 2000, the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board found. The agency said there were problems in about 13 percent of all contributions from one campaign group to another. The other 87 percent of records were correct, the agency found.

The agency's analysis found an even greater dollar disparity in the campaign finance data than the Star Tribune found back in November. When the Star Tribune first reported its discovery of the errors, the newspaper found at least $20 million of donations were missing from data going back to 2001. The board, which also included 2000 data, found an additional $6 million in problem records.

Since November, the campaign board has worked to fix the issues. At the end of the year, it had reduced the value of the mismatched records to $18 million. Much of that 31 percent reduction stemmed from regular data checks the agency always performs and the resolution of very large errors from 2002.

Those quick and massive fixes will not be the route of the future, as campaign regulators continue to work to make their records balance.

"Going forward we are going to have to be looking at smaller records," the campaign finance board assistant executive director Jeff Sigurdson said at a board meeting Tuesday.

The $26 million worth of problems the agency found in its own records is even larger than the newspaper discovered. Based on October data, the Star Tribune found at least $20 million worth of errors.

Both the agency's analysis and newspaper's findings highlight the same root problem. In data long released to the public, frequently one campaign organization will report giving donations to an another Minnesota campaign, which does not in turn report receiving the donation. Equally problematic: often a campaign will report receiving a donation from a group that the donor did not report giving.

"The good thing that's come to light about this all is, we do want this to be transparent, we do want this to be available to the public," said former state Sen. Deanna Wiener, who chairs the campaign finance board.

In addition to coming up with its own analysis of the problems, the agency has removed millions of dollars worth of donations from its website in cases when it found unreconciled data. Omitting those mean that the agency now reports $18 million less cash flowing among campaigns that it previously had.

The agency has also added a disclaimer to its searchable online site alerting the public that the online data may include errors.

Further, on Tuesday, the board approved a legislative proposal to require politicians and groups to promptly work with the agency to reconcile errors. Previously, agency staff largely relied on good will from candidates and campaigns to fix problems.

The legislation, if approved by lawmakers and the governor, would fine uncooperative campaigns $25 a day, up to $1,000, for their lack of cooperation. The board will also ask lawmakers to allow for civil penalties for uncooperative campaigns of up to $3,000.

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