Carver County Board of Commissioner candidate Matt Udermann has violated a Minnesota statute by making false endorsement claims and owes a $600 civil fine, according to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).
The case began as a Facebook post in August. An account in Udermann’s name claimed he “enjoy(ed) the support of over half the School Board,” but didn’t have necessary written approval, stated an OAH order finding probable cause, before the issue was sent to a panel of administrative law judges.
According to the OAH documents, Chaska resident Pam Wentink, the case’s complainant, commented on his post, asking him to disclose which board members supported Udermann. He did not respond immediately, Wentink said according to the order, before posting a clarifying comment.
“It’s just bizarre. Can you just, like, randomly claim that you have support from people without like actually having the support?” Wentink said in a phone interview with the newspaper, before the decision.
On Sept. 4 she filed a complaint with the OAH. The panel of judges issued their findings on Oct. 12, and Udermann has until Nov. 12 to pay his $600 fine.
"I think it was the appropriate outcome," Wentink said about the result. "The court operated efficiently, in an expedited manner and it was fair."
"I'm pleased we can put this to bed and spend our best energy focused on the issues that matter to Carver County, including focusing our energy on better outcomes for our students — we'd invite the complainant and others to join us in these efforts," said Udermann, in an email after the decision was announced.
'COULD HAVE BEEN CLEARER'
In the hearing, Udermann said his post meant he had “general support” from School Board, arguing that was different than formal public endorsement.
“In hindsight, I could have been clearer,” Udermann said in an interview, before the decision. “It was never my intent to pursue formal endorsement, nor any signed letter of support.”
Jeffrey Ross, Eastern Carver County Schools board chair, said he and other members supported some of Udermann’s campaign initiatives, but didn’t formally endorse any candidate.
“I am a non-partisan elected official,” Ross said in a written statement sent to the newspaper. “Directly endorsing (and) supporting, beyond initiatives, (a) candidate, would be against what I am trying to achieve in bringing the community together."
Udermann’s campaign initiatives are closing the economic disparity gap, increasing mental health resources, and improving food and housing stability.
While Udermann did not name any specific School Board members in his comments, the board is a small, identifiable group, and the members "have an interest in not being pressed into service in support of a campaign without their permission," the panel of judges said.
Both Wentink and Udermann said to the newspaper before the results that they were caught off-guard by the case’s development.
Wentink filed the complaint but didn’t realize she, as the complainant, would be involved through the final decision. Udermann said the whole matter went to extremes, considering he posted a clarification and was “trying to do the right thing," he told the newspaper.
“I was a bit shocked and surprised that what I believe was an honest gap in communication has been pushed this far,” Udermann said in an email to the newspaper.
Wentink told the newspaper she felt Udermann was “weaponizing” the school board against people who thought of equity differently than he.
To the newspaper, Udermann said “weaponizing” feels like a word used to “stoke fear or division.” He said he’s shared how a commissioner can help create equity and wants the referendum to go through next year.
Wentink had asked the panel of judges to assess a penalty between $2,500-$5,000, claiming that Udermann's failure to issue a correction gave him an unfair advantage. However, the panel said there is no evidence that his claims had more than a minimal effect on voters. The comments were also posted months before the election, allowing plenty of time to counter the claims, they said.
Wentink was pleased with the result, but said she wished Udermann had explained to the community how he misspoke.
As far as which cases are picked up by the OAH, as long as they’re officially filed, they will be sent for review. When asked if more campaign violations were being reported this year, Schmit said it fluctuates every year.
When asked how the result may change his campaign, Udermann said they will be using it as a learning opportunity.
"We're happy to put this behind us and continue connecting with what really matters to voters."
Reporter Audrey Kennedy contributed to this report.