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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Dirty Money

Something stunning was brought to my attention this afternoon.

Apparently, after learning that they didn't submit the lowest-priced response to our RFP, a hauler decided to do an anti-organization mailing ... starting to sound familiar? This time it was Highland Sanitation, with a twist.  They used their company's bills to Maplewood customers as a way to distribute Bob Cardinal's campaign literature, along with a letter from the hauler attacking the city council in general and me in particular. A resident told me he was surprised to open his Highland bill and find this letter and a flier “prepared and paid for” by the Cardinal campaign.

For now, I'm going to set aside the numerous false statements in the letter, which they know to be false because they participated in the process, and even if they don't know what's in the other proposals they certainly should have kept a copy of their own for reference. Beyond the lies, this company-candidate collaboration for a mailing puts them in an "interesting" area of campaign finance law having to do with corporations buying candidates or elections to further their own profits, ahead of the public's health, safety, welfare, and financial interests.

You may have heard about that Citizens United case, which laid out the right of corporations to make independent expenditures for or against particular candidates. Even after Citizens United, there remains a bright line prohibiting direct contributions and coordinated expenditures – that's why you hear that blurb about “not approved by any candidate or candidate's committee” on attack ads put out by the faceless entities created to hide which corporations are funding them. They need to make clear that they're not making strategic decisions with the candidate they support to maximize the impact of their spending, and that they're not making their candidate directly aware of how much money they're spending to help get him/her elected.

It's still very, very illegal for a corporation in Minnesota to contribute directly to a candidate's campaign. “Contribute” includes “in-kind” donations – say, paying to mail the candidate's literature directly to your own customer list.

Here we have a candidate whose platform is opposition to organized hauling. A hauler, seeing they're unlikely to land a city-wide contract, decides they'd rather make sure no one gets it if it's not theirs. They notice a candidate who appears to put hauler profits or at least ideology ahead of resident pocketbooks. The hauler and candidate get in touch with each other, and work out a plan where the hauler will save the candidate a lot of money on postage by delivering his campaign literature in the hauler's bills. (Postage is a much bigger expense than printing when it comes to campaign literature.) Doesn't that smell just a little bit like the bottom a well-used trash bin?

How serious is this? Prohibited corporate contributions are taken very seriously, because of the enormous potential for corruption. Most campaign law infractions are misdemeanors or occasionally gross misdemeanors. This is one that goes into felony territory. (See Minn. Stat. 211B.15 Subd. 6-7.) A company convicted of illegal corporate campaign contributions could be fined up to $40,000 and even forcibly dissolved; individuals at the company involved could face $20,000 fines each and/or up to five years' imprisonment.

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OK John, let's get back to reality.

First of all, how many customers does this small little trash company have? A few dozen? Maybe a hundred? Maybe 500? What percentage of Maplewood do they service? 5%? That is the range we are talking about.

Second, have you read the campaign finance reports from the candidates? No. Have the candidates reported everything up to today? No. Did this campaign pay a portion of the postage? You have no clue, and neither do I.

While there is a lot of hype about violating these campaign laws, they are practically meaningless in city council campaigns.

During my race for Mayor, my opponent sent out a mailing and used a postal machine to pay for postage. I found this odd since most people do not own these. I traced it back to Smith Micro Technologies of Vadnais Heights. The owner was a campaign supporter of this candidate. Did the candidate get charged? No. Absolutely nothing happened.

A few months ago, the Roseville School District sent parents a political mailing attacking several legislators and praising others. The school board paid their attorney $1500 to write them a letter exonerating them. When I asked for the letter, they said it was not public, citing attorney client privilege. Nothing happened to them at present.

The last point is that turnout in Maplewood elections is a joke. Do you even get 1 in 3 to show up? If so, then take the handful of customers this trash hauler and figure that only 1 in 3 will vote.

What you have is a mailing that may or may not be legal, but will have little to no affect on the outcome of the election.

Speaking of "Dirty Money" which was the headline of your piece, this brings another related issue to mind.

During my campaign for Mayor, a developer personally donated money to me. A whole $300. A coworker of his donated another $300.

The opponents cried foul. You have been bought and paid for. You are unethical. You are now owned by them. Well it sounded like a good newspaper headline until you got into the facts.

First, the developer owned no property in Roseville. He owned no buildings in Roseville. He publicly stated to everyone that he would never do business in this city again because staff was so corrupt.

Second, his donation amounted to something like 2% of my total contributions. I found it insulting that someone would think that I could be bought for 2%.

I admit that it made a great headline, but it was a hollow story in the end.

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