The Freedom Club State Political Action Committee, which supports conservative candidates and issues, spent more than $1 million to run an ad 885 times on network TV last year attacking Minnesota Democrats without disclosing the spending as an independent expenditure, according to the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
But the spending was legal because of the narrow and ambiguous wording of the state’s campaign disclosure statute, said Jeff Sigurdson, assistant director, in a memo and presentation to the board on Tuesday.
Sigurdson used it as an example of big sums often spent without having to be disclosed to voters.
Freedom Club did not return a call or an e-mail seeking comment.
Sigurdson said the cost of the ad appeared to be disclosed as a general expenditure made by the Freedom Club committee, and not as an independent expenditure for or against a candidate or group of candidates. If the group had used its nonprofit corporation instead of the political fund to spend the money, it could have avoided even that level of disclosure.
The political parties, candidates and political action committees spent an estimated $66 million on the 2014 Minnesota contests. Many election observers believe that weaknesses in Minnesota law, combined with recent federal court cases striking down some provisions of campaign finance laws, have led to significant sums spent without disclosure, including millions last year in Minnesota alone — on both sides.
An independent expenditure must be declared if it expressly advocates for the election or defeat of a candidate, but Minnesota law is not clear on what that means. A prior U.S. Supreme Court ruling provided eight words that demonstrate what is known as express advocacy. These include elect, support, cast your ballot for, Smith for Congress, vote against, defeat and reject.
The board previously has proposed a statutory change at the Legislature that would more broadly define express advocacy and thereby close the loophole and give Minnesotans more information about where political ads are coming from and who is picking up the tab. The Legislature has declined to take up the language.
Board member Daniel Rosen said the board could bypass the Legislature and use its rule-making authority to broaden the definition of express advocacy. He also made the case that more political spending is good for politics, pointing to a “rich history of anonymous speech” back to Revolutionary-era pamphleteers in defense of anonymous political spending.
DFL-aligned groups in recent years have been effective fundraisers. They retained an overall fundraising advantage last year, with Democratic-aligned groups spending $10 million to the approximate $6 million of their Republican counterparts on so-called independent expenditures.
The board took no action.