School District 833 resident files campaign finance complaint against pro-levy group
A School District 833 resident alleges that a citizen group advocating passage of the school referendum broke campaign laws.
Andrea Mayer-Bruestle, of Woodbury, filed a complaint Monday against Committee for VOTE with the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings, which handles cases alleging violations of the state’s Fair Campaign Practices and Campaign Finance Acts.
Committee for VOTE is a volunteer, independent group campaigning in support of South Washington County Schools’ three-question referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot. The referendum includes an operating levy renewal, an operating levy increase and a bond measure.
Mayer-Bruestle, a vocal critic of some district administrative and school board decisions who has tangled with Committee for VOTE on social media, claims the committee has failed to disclose financial information and expenses. She also points to other alleged filing problems.
“They’re basically thumbing their nose at the rules,” Mayer-Bruestle said in an interview.
Committee for VOTE has done more than is required on its financial reporting, countered Winnie Williams, who is co-chairing the group for the first time. She acknowledged they may not have followed specific paperwork and committee address requirements but defended how it has documented donations and expenses.
“I don’t have anything to hide in our filings,” Williams said. “We went above and beyond, I think.”
The election is next week, and Mayer-Bruestle requested an expedited probable cause hearing on her complaint. Violating the laws cited in the complaint could be a misdemeanor.
The most significant complaints involve the committee’s reporting of contributions and expenses on a mid-October filing. It was the first report filed of the campaign season and it showed the committee had $2,200 cash on hand but did not list contributions, and it listed expenses totaling more than $3,200.
Williams said the committee had money left over from previous levy campaigns and did not list contributions because nobody gave over $100 during the period covered by the filing. (The state requires any donations over $100 to be listed.) Williams said there were more expenses listed than available funds because the committee voluntarily included purchases it had charged but had not yet paid. That was an attempt to be more transparent than what is required, she said.
Mayer-Bruestle questioned whether the committee provided all of the required financial information on the filing.
Williams does not handle campaign filings; that is done by committee treasurer Mary Scholz.
Mayer-Bruestle alleged other violations in her complaint.
For instance, the committee’s mid-October filing does not specify the ballot question it is working on.
“I think that it’s pretty obvious,” Williams said, “but I grant you somebody should have filled in that line.”
The committee’s latest filing does list the ballot question.
Mayer-Bruestle also made claims about the committee’s address. The committee is using the Woodbury law office of Carter Bergen as its mailing address, with Bergen’s permission, but Mayer-Bruestle said there was no signage identifying the office as the committee’s headquarters, nor is use of the office reflected on the campaign filings. If the committee is using space at no expense, that should be considered an in-kind campaign donation, she claimed.
Williams said the committee has only held two meetings at Bergen’s office and otherwise uses it as a mailing address.
“It was not an attempt to deceive,” Williams said. Initial campaign materials did not list the full address with suite number, but subsequent materials did, Williams said.
Mayer-Bruestle said the committee still hasn’t met address requirements.
The committee actively worked to help pass District 833 school levies in 2006 and 2007 and then with new leadership — Williams and fellow Woodbury resident John Norris —started up again to advocate for this fall’s levy vote.
Mayer-Bruestle’s complaint alleges that the committee did not file annual financial reports in the years between the school levies, which is required of campaigns even in years when there is no election. Williams said she has asked people who worked on previous campaigns to look for those filings.
The initial complaint Mayer-Bruestle filed also alleged the committee failed to submit a campaign report on time and didn't properly account for advertising expenses. However, Mayer-Bruestle on Tuesday requested that the administrative law judge reviewing the case withdraw those claims because the committee did submit the report on time and documented the advertising expenses.
Williams said she has talked to people involved in past pro-school levy campaigns and they don’t recall a similar level of scrutiny paid to their activities.
“I don’t know where it comes from,” Williams said.
Mayer-Bruestle said she is tracking finance filings of all District 833 School Board candidates in addition to the Committee for VOTE.
“It is important that they all follow it,” she said. “I’m not just picking on the committee.”