MINNETRISTA — Minnetrista's mayor and two City Council members have been fined for violating campaign finance law, the Office of Administrative Hearings ruled.
In the fall of 2018, Minnetrista City Councilperson Shannon Bruce started looking into the organization Our Minnetrista after noticing fliers and signs around Minnetrista from the group campaigning for John Tschumperlin and Pam Mortenson, also City Council hopefuls.
Bruce looked for campaign committee filings for Our Minnetrista but just found individual campaign reports for both Tschumperlin and Mortenson and began diving into the reports, according to the findings of fact and conclusions of law and order filed by the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).
After studying the campaign reports of Tschumperlin, Mortenson, Mayor Lisa Whalen and a former council member Patricia Thoele, Bruce filed a complaint about what she believed were campaign finance violations.
“So many things just didn’t add up,” Bruce told Lakeshore Weekly News. “There was obviously an extraordinary amount of money being spent in this small town election in 2018, and when I tried to figure out where it was coming from, I found suspicious entries on candidate reports and then found evidence indicating the source of their contributions was being concealed.”
Bruce was elected to the City Council in 2016. Tchumperlin were elected to the Minnetrista City Council in 2018. Mortenson was elected to the City Council in 2014 and re-elected in 2018. Whalen was elected mayor in 2014 and re-elected in 2018.
The filings Bruce looked into dated back to 2014, when Our Minnetrista popped onto the city’s political scene, the Office of Administrative Hearings findings report said.
In March and April of 2014, a group of Minnetrista residents formed the group Our Minnetrista in attempts to change some of the local politics in Minnestrista, the report said.
David Kolb and Karen Danielson were the founding members of the organization, according to the report. Kolb took the position of chair and Danielson took on the role of treasurer and finance chair.
The group decided to help three candidates running for local office in 2014, Mortenson and Thoele for City Council and Whalen for mayor, the report noted.
Our Minnetrista solicited campaign contributions for the three candidates, telling donors to write a check to Our Minnetrista and the money they donate would be split evenly between the three candidates, the report said. Donors also had the option to donate to just one candidate.
Danielson created three bank accounts under the name Our Minnetrista and donations were split evenly between the accounts which corresponded to each of the candidates, the report said.
Campaign expenses undertaken by Our Minnetrista were paid for by the three bank accounts, including printing expenses for fliers and signs, the report noted.
Danielson filed candidate campaign reports with the city of Minnetrista for each of the candidates. These reports listed each person who had donated to Our Minnetrista as individual donors. There was no mention of donations from Our Minnetrista on any of the candidate reports, the report explained. Danielson did not file a committee report for Our Minnetrista.
Our Minnetrista did not endorse any candidates in the 2016 election, the report said.
In 2018, Our Minnetrista endorsed two candidates — Mortenson and Tschumperlin, who were both running for City Council. Our Minnetrista again solicited donations for the two candidates and split donations between two bank accounts, the report said. The group also created campaign fliers and signs endorsing Mortenson and Tschumperlin.
Danielson filed candidate campaign reports with the city of Minnetrista for each of the candidates with donations listed as being from individual donors. Our Minnetrista did not file a committee report, the report said.
In November and December of 2018, Bruce filed three complaints with the Office of Administrative Hearings, which were then consolidated by the chief administrative law judge into one case.
The Office of Administrative Hearings made the following findings as noted in the findings of fact and conclusions of law and order, filed June 7.
- “A ‘committee’ is defined, in part, to mean ‘a corporation or association or persons acting together to influence the nomination, election or defeat of a candidate.’” Our Minnetrista is a committee by this definition.
- Under Minnesota statute 211A.02, committees must file a campaign finance report if they receive or disburse more than $750. Our Minnetrista did receive and disburse more than $750 in 2018 and therefore violated the law.
- Under Minnesota statute 211A.12, candidates in voting districts with less than 100,000 residents cannot accept more than $600 in contributions from an individual or committee. Our Minnetrista is a committee and handled all of contributions and disbursements for the campaigns for Mortenson, Thoele, Whalen and Tschumperlin, and therefore the candidates violated the law.
- It was not found that the respondents intended to conceal their receipts and disbursements, which would have violated Minnesota statute 211A.06 and resulted in a misdemeanor.
- Our Minnetrista, specifically Kolb and Danielson, were ordered to pay a fine of $2,000.
- Mortenson was ordered to pay a fine of $1,200 — $600 for 2014 and $600 for 2018.
- Thoele and Whalen were ordered to pay a fine of $600 for the 2014 election.
- Tschumperlin was ordered to pay a fine of $600 for the 2018 election.
Tschumperlin is in his first year of office as a City Council member for Minnetrista. He told Lakeshore Weekly News he believes the findings are a good thing and while he has a fine to pay, he understands the findings.
“This does taint my feeling for it,” Tschumperlin said about his position, “I still feel I can bring a neutral nonbiased opinion to the council irregardless of all this peripheral stuff.”
Mortenson is in her fifth year as a City Council member for Minnetrista — after being elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2018 with the help of Our Minnetrista.
“The OAH ruling identified technical and administrative errors by our grassroots campaign, that we did not recognize as violations of the Campaign Finance Reporting Statutes as written,” she told the paper. “ I believe the related guidelines (and possibly the statutes) should be reviewed and updated to clarify reporting issues for increasingly active local campaigns.”
Whalen was elected in 2014 as mayor of Minnetrista and re-elected in 2018.
“We apologized to the city of Minnetrista and we are going to continue doing our jobs,” she said. “I’m going to focus on issues that pertain to Minnetrista and continue to act in the best interests of the residents of Minnetrista.”
Residents speak out
The July 15 Minnetrista City Council meeting saw a large number of residents speak during public comment portion of the meeting, where residents can voice concerns they’d like the City Council and mayor to hear.
Some residents asked for Mortenson, Tschumperlin and Whalen to resign from their positions. Other residents supported the elected officials and asked the city to move on.
Danielson, the treasurer of Our Minnetrista who filed the campaign reports, spoke about her part in the violations while holding back tears, maintaining there was no ill-intent by Our Minnetrista or the candidates.
Whalen did not allow comment or debate from the City Council about the comments from residents but gave a short statement apologizing to the people of Minnetrista. Tschumperlin, Mortenson and Whalen all stated during the meeting they have no intention of resigning.