Three Bemidji City Council candidates and a campaign contributor have been fined $3,000 for related campaign finance violations stemming from the November city election.
The candidates — Joe Vene, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor, Mike Beard who won a seat on the City Council, and Don Heinonen, who lost his bid for a Council seat — promoted themselves through an unregistered committee called Bemidji First, saying they “shared common goals of investing towards Bemidji’s future.”
Over the past several months, however, separate panels of administrative law judges found that the candidates failed to properly disclose who was behind the committee, prompting the penalties. They fined Heinonen $500 in November. In January, Vene and Beard were each fined $750, and retired Bemidji jeweler Dean Thompson, one of four individuals who created Bemidji First, was fined $1,000.
Some voters grew suspicious of Bemidji First last fall when it launched a campaign through social media to elect the three men. Suspicions turned to outrage in October, after Heinonen filed a campaign finance report showing that he had accepted an in-kind contribution of $2,400 to have Pinnacle Publishing create a website without disclosing who put up the money.
Bemidji resident Robert Saxton called Bemidji First a “nebulous group” of “three white guys” running on a vague platform of making the city great. He complained to the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board alleging that Heinonen had not properly disclosed the identities of his contributors.
Heinonen quickly amended his report showing that four individuals each had paid $600 to create a Bemidji First website. The contributors were listed as Dean and Mary Ann Thompson and Steven and Jill Hill. The amended report failed to disclose their employers or occupations, however, and required another amendment.
Dean Thompson is a retired jewelry store owner and former chairman of the board of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota. Mary Ann Thompson, his wife, is a homemaker. Steven and Jill Hill own Hills Plumbing and Heating Inc. in Bemidji.
Saxton noted that Bryan Nermoe, CEO of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, also contributed $599. Saxton said he suspected that the Bemidji First candidates were running to back a stalled development proposal: the Sanford Family Sports and Wellness Complex.
That project has been described by the Bemidji Pioneer newspaper as a $27 million, 175,000-square-foot campus with a wellness center, aquatic space, a multiuse sports arena with a bubble roof and a two-sheet ice arena. The facility would be funded by Sanford Health, which put up $10 million, and Greater Bemidji Economic Development, a public-private entity that includes Nermoe and Steven Hill on its board.
Neither Heinonen, Vene, Beard or the Hills responded this week to messages seeking their comment.
Both Heinonen and Beard told the campaign finance board, however, that Thompson had approached them and said that he and other individuals supported their candidacy and wanted to help them campaign. Beard wrote in a statement to the board that he knew Thompson and the Hills, but barely knew Heinonen or Vene.
Thompson acknowledged in a sworn statement that he was responsible for the Bemidji First marketing plan. In an interview this week, he denied that Bemidji First had anything to do with the Sports and Wellness complex, or with Nermoe.
“Bemidji First is two married couples that have known each other for many, many, many years,” he said. “We look at Bemidji as a city that needs to grow. I’ve done everything in my life to make Bemidji a better place.”
Thompson noted that he had served on a variety of corporate and civic boards over the years. He said if the Bemidji First website expenses had been paid to the candidates as contributions instead of to Pinnacle, the donors would not have constituted a committee and no violation would have taken place. “This is no more than a campaign contribution that went wrong because of an error,” he said.
The name Bemidji First came from a slogan Vene had used in his campaign, Thompson said. He denied that the candidates ran as “a slate” with a common agenda.
Nermoe said he made independent, personal contributions to the candidates — not to Bemidji First. He said he believes they share his belief that “we can grow our community and not have 24 percent of the city living in poverty.”
Ara Gallo, a Bemidji resident who filed the complaints against Thompson and Beard, said he was disappointed that the fines weren’t bigger and that the judges declined to remove Beard from office.
“They played dirty. It’s not fair,” Gallo said. “They created their own little cabal to run three candidates together on one ticket, and that’s wrong.”