The Senate GOP caucus violated state election law, a judicial panel ruled.
The Office of Administrative Hearings slapped the Republican caucus, Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, 10 individual senators, and communications director Steve Sviggum with more than $1,000 in fines over the violation. The complaint dates back to the February caucuses, when thousands of fliers popped up in Republican precincts around the state.
The literature thanked voters "for joining this Republican precinct caucus," and noted that "the Senate Republican majority delivered for Minnesota." The handouts included a link to the Senate GOP's campaign website, which includes a form to donate to Republicans.
In a ruling filed last Friday, the judges concluded that the literature, produced out of the caucus's taxpayer-funded budget, constituted "campaign material," designed to influence people's votes.
The material "highlighted the legislative accomplishments of the Republican Senate majority in 2011, discussed proposed legislative initiatives for the 2012 session, criticized the Democratic Governor, and thanked those attending the precinct caucuses for their involvement," the judges noted in their decision.
State Democrats, who filed the complaint, celebrated the ruling.
“The conclusion by the court affirms what we have been saying since February: the Senate Republican Caucus broke the law when they decided to use our tax dollars to print partisan campaign literature," DFL Chair Ken Martin said in a statement. "This finding comes as no surprise, especially not to anyone who has paid attention to the escalating pattern of lawlessness that has come to define this Republican legislature."
Sviggum, who took up his Senate post about a week before the fliers were designed and approved, was fined $200 -- compared to the $75 fines slapped on the lawmakers for violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act. The former House speaker pointed out that a Senate attorney signed off on the design of the fliers.
Sviggum said he found the court's decision "very disturbing," mainly because it did not clarify what lawmakers could legally write to their constituents without crossing the line betwe en information and campaign literature. A senate attorney reviewed the brochures before they were distributed and concluded they followed election law, Sviggum noted.
"OAH's reading of the statue is not only wrong, it creates a dangerous precedent," he wrote in a handwritten response to the panel on Wednesday. "On a daily basis, elected officials send out press releases, editorials, radio clips, videos and mail to constituent groups both large and small...OAH has provided no guidance as far as at what point information distributed by elected officials is campaign material."
The other Senate members mentioned in the ruling are Sen. Al DeKruif, Sen. Chris Gerlach, Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, Sen. Benjamin Kruse, Sen. Ted Lillie, Sen. Claire Robling, Sen. Ray Vandeveer, Sen. Pam Wolf, Sen. Michelle Fischbach, and Sen. John Pederson.