REGIONAL—St. Louis County officials announced Wednesday that they plan to defy a non-binding opinion issued by the Minnesota Department of Administration regarding email communications between …
REGIONAL—St. Louis County officials announced Wednesday that they plan to defy a non-binding opinion issued by the Minnesota Department of Administration regarding email communications between County Commissioner Pete Stauber and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Commissioner of Administration issued an advisory opinion on Tuesday that found that St. Louis County acted improperly when it denied the Star Tribune and other media access to the emails between Stauber and the NRCC.
“Government data are presumed to be public unless otherwise classified,” Commissioner Matthew Massman said in his opinion. “When an entity denies access to data, it must cite specific statutory authority or other legal justification for the denial.”
Both the Star Tribune and the Duluth News Tribune requested the opinion from the Commissioner of Administration after the county declined to release the emails, which are on a government server, because the content of the messages were between Stauber and “an individual.”
According to Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney and public access expert Mark Anfinson, the law’s intent is to prevent the disclosure of communications between elected officials and actual constituents, not lobbyists or political groups.
The Commissioner of Administration agreed, concluding that the NRCC does not qualify as an individual under the state’s interpretation of the law, so the county’s refusal to hand over the communications was a violation of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.
According to Massman, the law in question, Minnesota Statute Chapter 13, does not apply to an individual acting on behalf of an organization or other entity, only to a person acting on their own behalf and not representing any other organization.
The opinion of Massman is not legally binding and county officials released a statement on Wednesday indicating that the county would not comply.
“Our highest priority has always been and continues to be to follow the law,” said the statement.
The opinion does raise the stakes for the county if it refuses to hand over the emails to media, including the Timberjay, which filed its own request earlier this month. In any court challenge, judges must give considerable weight to opinions issued by the Department of Administration. And the county could be liable for attorneys fees for any media organization that pursues the case in court, and wins.
Randy Lebedoff, legal counsel for the Star Tribune, said he found the county’s position “surprising,” and that the newspaper was “considering all its options.”
The opinion of the commissioner drew a quick response from DFL candidate Joe Radinovich’s campaign manager, Jordan Hagert, who noted that Stauber’s allies had gone after Radinovich for traffic violations, while Stauber’s own observance of the law was in doubt.
“Pete Stauber seems to believe his election certificate allows him to live by one set of rules while the rest of us live by another,” Hagert said. “Stauber wasted official resources and our taxpayer dollars to strategize with Washington special interests and was caught, red-handed.”
DFL Chairman Ken Martin echoed the sentiment in a statement from the party stating, “Pete Stauber’s constituents in St. Louis County have every right to know what was in the emails he sent to the National Republican Campaign Committee from his county email address on county time. This has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with public trust in government.”
In a statement to the Star Tribune, Stauber spokeswoman Caroline Tarwid said Stauber had declined all requests to release the emails and made a mocking claim that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had pulled support from the Eighth District race.
Radinovich’s commun-ications director told the Timberjay on Tuesday evening while the DCCC and the campaign are not allowed to coordinate, the image of a campaign in turmoil is just a political ploy by the GOP.
“Republicans are terrified that they have a candidate that is sneaky and misleading and isn’t being honest with voters,” he said. “They are trying to stir up a narrative that shows the Radinovich campaign is being abandoned.”