It was bad enough that St. Paul police union leaders publicized a letter they sent to mayoral candidate Melvin Carter III last week. The missive questioned the candidate about whether he did enough to secure two handguns that were stolen from his home last summer and whether he called police quickly enough — even though Police Chief Todd Axtell says there are "no open questions" about the August burglary.

St. Paul Police Federation leaders have endorsed another mayoral candidate in the hard-fought race, Pat Harris, so it's clear the letter, sent days before the city election, was meant to undermine Carter's candidacy.

But to make an already reprehensible political ambush even worse, another group distributed a flier that built on the union letter's insinuations — and in the process kicked the dirty politics up another notch. The Building a Better St. Paul political action committee (PAC) distributed a mailer to some voters' homes this week. It declares that "St. Paul has a crisis!" and includes statistics about an increase in gun violence. "Over 100 shots have been fired since August 15 when Melvin Carter's guns went missing," it adds, and says the guns likely would not be on the streets if Carter had called police immediately.

It's both ridiculous and disgraceful to suggest that kind of bogus connection for political gain. We doubt that any other victim of a similar gun theft ever would be solely blamed for a city's increase in gun violence.

For his part, Harris told an editorial writer that neither he nor his campaign staff had anything to do with either the letter or the flier. He added that he is "appalled'' by both documents. Though they were presumably sent to aid his mayoral bid, he said he cannot by law be in contact with an "independent expenditure'' group or have any influence over what it does. Harris, along with Mayor Chris Coleman and some other elected officials, soundly denounced the pieces and have called for the resignations of the Police Federation leadership.

On Wednesday, Federation President Dave Titus apologized for the letter to Carter. However, the next day the flier was mailed; lo and behold, one of the primary organizations paying for it was the union. The PAC received $147,900 in donations, including $52,500 from the federation, $40,800 from the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and thousands from other groups, including the firefighters union and Teamsters.

Campaign staff for Carter, who is black, called the letter a "racist attack" and said the mailing shows the union apology was disingenuous.

By Friday, most of the PAC's contributor groups had jumped on the apology bandwagon, said they didn't know how the PAC managers used their money and distanced themselves from the offensive flier. They also disbanded the PAC. If these groups didn't know how, or in what spirit, their funds would be used, they should have. Whoever wrote, produced and sent out the unworthy piece in the name of the now-defunct Building a Better St. Paul should be taken to task.

This disturbing affair is another example of the dangers surrounding the role of money in politics. Unaccountable groups that raise large sums to smear candidates damage the democratic ideal of fair elections.