Gov. Tim Walz named four new members to the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board on Friday, filling vacancies that threatened to paralyze the panel’s political watchdog work in the midst of an election year.
Three recent members of the board, former DFL state Sen. Carol Flynn, former GOP state Rep. Peggy Leppik and Judge Stephen Swanson, will return to their seats after lapsed terms. Faris Rashid, a partner at the law firm Greene Espel, will fill the fourth open spot.
The six-member board, which investigates and responds to potential violations of state campaign finance law, was down to just two active members in July after several appointments expired without action by the governor and state legislators.
Without a quorum of four members, the board was unable to meet, authorize investigations into complaints or vote on fines and other enforcement actions, Executive Director Jeff Sigurdson said. Administrative tasks, including the collection and publication of campaign finance reports, were not affected.
The lapse in membership drew concerns from advocates for ethics and transparency in politics who said the situation created a vacuum of accountability as the 2020 election heats up. Similar issues have plagued the Federal Election Commission this year.
George Beck, a retired administrative law judge and former chairman of the panel, said a lack of quorum comes close to “abolishing the board during an election year,” when the need is highest for prompt action on complaints and violations.
“In my mind, it’s an insult to the people of Minnesota,” said Beck, now chairman of the advocacy group Clean Elections Minnesota. “The board is the only body they have recourse to if there’s violations by the legislators or the members of the executive branch.”
Complaints and ongoing investigations are not public, so it’s not clear what if any enforcement actions were delayed by the missed meetings. Daniel Rosen, an attorney first appointed to the board by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014, said that while prolonged vacancies could be problematic, the missed meeting had not yet affected the board’s functions. He noted that regular meetings are occasionally canceled or postponed when scheduling conflicts prevent the board from reaching a quorum.
Robert Moilanen, outgoing chairman of the board, agreed that the overall impact on enforcement work was likely minimal. But he shares Beck’s concerns that the month off created a potential credibility issue for the board before a busy election season.
“From an image standpoint, if you have no cops on the beat during an election year, I think that looks bad,” Moilanen said.
Board appointments require approval by a supermajority of lawmakers in both the state House and Senate, although they can begin their work immediately pending the Legislature’s return for its next regular session in January.
State law mandates selection of appointees from both parties, with spots reserved for former DFL and GOP lawmakers. No more than three members of the same political party can serve at any given time.
Even with those requirements, the appointments can generate intense attention and partisan quarrels. In 2016, concerns over an appointee’s political background torpedoed one of Dayton’s pick for the panel, leaving the board with the minimum number of members needed to act heading into that presidential election.
This year, two of the four recent openings on the board were prompted by legislators’ failure to confirm the appointees by the statutory deadline. Walz had tapped Flynn and Moilanen for new four-year terms in 2019, but both appointments expired when the Legislature adjourned the regular session in May without a vote.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the House planned to begin the confirmation process in March, but hearings were postponed when the Legislature paused most work at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Word that the GOP-led Senate didn’t plan to move forward with confirmations bumped the issue down on the caucus’ priority list given the truncated legislative agenda, she said. Hortman said she expects the House to act in its next regular session.
A spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans said COVID-19 got in the way of confirmation hearings on their side.
With the new appointment, Flynn will get another chance at legislative confirmation next year. Moilanen, a vocal advocate for strengthening laws related to conflict-of-interest and campaign-finance disclosure, was not selected for another term. A spokesman for Walz said the administration was looking to bring new voices and perspectives to the board.
After learning he would not be reappointed, Moilanen released a letter calling for changes to the confirmation process and to political disclosure laws more broadly. The new board, he said, has a “heavy lift ahead” in persuading leaders to act.
“The Board has been told that amendments must wait because it is a budget year … because it is a bonding year … because it is a campaign year,” Moilanen wrote. “However, ensuring the flow of meaningful information to Minnesota voters cannot wait forever. Transparency and disclosure of relevant information is fundamental to maintain our democratic system and discourage corruption.”