An election watchdog group is asking the state to look into what its says are widespread campaign finance violations by the Minnesota Republican Party under former Chairman Tony Sutton.

Common Cause Minnesota filed a complaint with the state Campaign Finance Board on Wednesday, alleging that the party set up a shell corporation in an effort to hide its activities during the 2010 gubernatorial recount. The group alleges the party broke numerous state laws in its failure to disclose $1.1 million in expenses related to the 2010 elections. The nine-page complaint also asks the board to conduct a full audit of party books and forward its findings to the Ramsey County attorney for possible prosecution.

"It's clear the party finances are in such a mess that the only way the board is going to get to the bottom of it is to do a full-fledged audit," said Common Cause Minnesota's Executive Director Mike Dean.

Sutton resigned abruptly a month ago in the face of mounting pressure over party spending. The party has since been digging through its books to find out the extent of its problems. Leaders last week disclosed the party is $2 million in debt and that some of the information uncovered in the past month was "ugly," but maintained they had not found any criminal activity.

Sutton has said he did the best he could under difficult circumstances. He called the latest allegations by Common Cause baseless and accused the group of being a left-wing organization that filed its complaint for political advantage. He said the party activity during the recount was all within the law.

"I followed the advice of legal counsel, our own legal counsel, based on the campaign finance board" advisory opinion, Sutton said. "It's very similar to what Mark Dayton did. They set up a recount fund. They chose to disclose, but it's not required, according to the advisory opinion."

New Republican Party chairman Pat Shortridge did not return a phone call Wednesday night.

The Common Cause complaint also alleges the party broke state law by running up at least $450,000 in legal fees during the recount without its treasurer approving the expenditures. The complaint accuses the party of filing false statements with the state's Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board and hiding expenses it was legally obligated to disclose.

Dean said the activity is akin to violations from several years ago outlined by the Federal Election Commission, which issued a $170,000 fine to the state party last year. He said the state board should issue stiff fines in this case to send a clear signal that circumventing disclosure laws won't be tolerated. He said if past precedent were followed, the board could fine the party for the full amount -- $1.1 million -- of its failed disclosures.

"You have a clear pattern going on here," Dean said. "At some point they need to send a message and I think they need to do that now. ... You don't accidentally lose $400,000."

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777