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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Judge denies request to dismiss campaign finance complaint

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/14/20

REGIONAL— An administrative law judge has denied a request by representatives of the former Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert School Districts to dismiss a campaign finance complaint filed by …

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Judge denies request to dismiss campaign finance complaint

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REGIONAL— An administrative law judge has denied a request by representatives of the former Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert School Districts to dismiss a campaign finance complaint filed by residents of the two former districts.
In an Oct. 5 ruling, ALJ Barbara Case found evidence to support the claims of district residents who contend that flyers and newspaper advertising paid for by the two school districts ahead of a 2019 bond referendum were promotional, rather than purely informational, and so funds expended on those materials should have been reported as campaign expenditures.
The judge noted that school districts had, historically, been considered exempt from campaign finance reporting requirements. “In 2012, however, the Minnesota Supreme Court held in Abrahamson v. St. Louis County School District that, where a school district goes beyond informing the public about a bond referendum and ‘acts to promote or defeat a ballot question,’ it meets the definition of a ‘committee’ for purposes of campaign financial reporting requirements.”
Campaign finance laws require reporting when total expenditures exceed $750, and the judge noted that invoices showed the districts had spent many thousands of dollars. Eveleth-Gilbert School District officials contended that they never actually paid for the promotional materials and advertising, and so weren’t subject to the requirement, but the judge noted that disclaimers on the ads and invoices produced by the school districts indicate otherwise.
At the same time, the judge did dismiss two other claims made in the complaint, filed by the group Concerned Citizens of the Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia School Districts, for lack of evidence. The judge found insufficient evidence to support a claim that the district had coordinated its campaign with the local citizens committee backing the referendum. It also found no evidence that the districts had intentionally failed to keep account of campaign spending with the intent to conceal.
The judge, at the same time, rejected the contention of the newly-consolidated Rock Ridge School District (comprised of the two former school districts) that the case should be dismissed as moot since the two districts no longer exist.
The complaint was handled by attorney Erick Kaardal, who had pled the groundbreaking Abrahamson case back in 2012. The case, unless it is settled, will most likely be heard before a three-judge panel of administrative law judges who would issue findings of fact and rule on the matter.

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