Star Tribune

Minnesota campaign finance regulators' database isn't adding up

Database errors worth as much as $20 million over past decade make it difficult to track flow of donations.

Article by: Glenn Howatt and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger , Star Tribune staff writers

Updated: November 9, 2013 - 10:42 PM

The online files from the state agency charged with tracking candidate and campaign fundraising are riddled with inaccuracies, leading to errors that total as much as $20 million over the past decade, according to an analysis by the Star Tribune.

About 7,000 records of donations between Minnesota groups are incorrect — an error rate of about one in seven. Electronic records dating to 2001 show that such groups may have donated as much as $143 million or as little as $122 million. The flaws are enough to hamper any comprehensive attempt to examine the flow of political money in the state, at a time when that spending has soared to record heights.

Upon reviewing the Star Tribune’s analysis, Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board officials acknowledged that their data is damaged and said they are unsure how deep the problems go. After learning the findings, agency officials said they would overhaul their data policies and pulled some faulty information from their website immediately. The agency also has added a lengthy disclaimer on its website warning that the searchable data long featured online may not be accurate.

“We are a long ways from where we want to be,” said board member George Beck, a former administrative law judge and investigator.

The problems in the online records show how far the state must go before it can replace paper reports — considered the official record — with electronic information, a long-standing goal of campaign regulators.

“Good and positive changes are going to result from your work and your highlighting of the data issues that you found,” Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, told a Star Tribune reporter.

Officials have not previously made clear to hundreds of thousands of website visitors that millions of dollars might be unaccounted for in their database and appear to have been unaware of how flawed their electronic records were.

“It wasn’t as clear to us that this was happening as it is now,” Goldsmith told the board at a midweek meeting, shortly after learning of the Star Tribune’s findings. At the meeting, board members instructed staff members to update and correct electronic filings “as soon as possible.”

Legislators say they are surprised and disturbed by what the analysis revealed.

“It really is about the public’s right to know and have access to accurate information. I’d want to know more,” said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins and the chairman of the House Elections Committee.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said the campaign agency has been underfunded for years, preventing it from making needed updates. But, he said, the scope of problems revealed in the analysis makes it difficult to assess whether campaigns’ reports have been sloppy or whether some contributions were purposely left out by campaigns.

“It’s a very legitimate concern and one that is troubling to hear about,” Marty said.

Disconnected from reality

As they began their own analysis of the data, board staffers said the electronic data — which has been searchable online for at least seven years — has become disconnected from reality.

“I will certainly be the first to acknowledge that we, as staff, are not confident that the electronic data sufficiently represents the file data at this point,” Goldsmith told the board.

In reviewing more than 100,000 records, the Star Tribune found thousands of instances in which political groups reported receipt of a contribution that no group reported giving. Similarly, some groups reported giving donations that no group reported receiving.

In 2011, the Minnesota Republican Party reported receiving $10,802 from the Minnesota House Republican Campaign Committee. But there is no electronic record of the House committee’s contribution.

Last year, the DFL Central Committee reported a $27,000 contribution from the DFL House Caucus. It does not show up in the database.

The analysis looked at transactions among Minnesota campaigns and groups, not donations from individuals or unregistered contributors. The contribution records examined by the Star Tribune equal about 40 percent of the $360 million that has flowed through state campaigns in the past decade.

Misreporting routine

The problems with the state’s data make it difficult to determine how much candidates donated to colleagues, parties and PACs. State records show that candidates’ committees have given $6.4 million, but the mismatched records suggest the actual amount could be $1 million higher.

Other interactions show far bigger discrepancies. Donations from political action committees to political parties could be as little as $34 million or as much as $40 million. The Star Tribune found a $2 million gap between what labor groups said they gave and what recipients said they got. The DFL and the Republican parties in the Minnesota show donations from their national parties that are off by millions of dollars, according to the electronic files.

Errors appear in all 10 years of records, but amounts diverged wildly in 2002. That year, the contributions from Minnesota groups to other Minnesota groups could have been as little as $16 million or as much as $31 million, based on electronic data, a difference of nearly 100 percent.

The campaign agency audits reports that candidates and political groups file. When the campaign watchdog finds errors, they will work to track the source of the errors and have the groups amend their reports.

If the agency manages to reconcile the reports, those fixes often do not appear in the electronic data the state makes available. Searching through scans of letters online, the Star Tribune found that the Republican House committee’s missing $10,802 contribution actually came from the committee’s federal campaign, not the state campaign. That discrepancy was not corrected in the searchable database. The Star Tribune found a $27,000 “transfer” in a report filed over the summer by the DFL House committee to the state party. But found no explanation for the expense, which doesn’t still show up in electronic files.

Another complication: Errors fixed in the database can be overridden when campaigns file amended reports. Goldsmith said the agency plans to address that and, in the wake of the findings, has already removed records of transfers among Minnesota groups that did not reconcile.

Goldsmith said he hopes to craft a legislative proposal that would add force and penalties for campaigns that do not quickly work with the board to fix errors.

According to agency policy, the official record of what campaigns and political groups give and gets is what is stored in paper files. By digging through those files, which can include 8 inches of paper for one political party for one year, the public could get a more accurate reading, officials said.

“That’s a chore, and it isn’t 100 percent accurate,” Goldsmith said.

Checking on each contribution to confirm its accuracy could take a lifetime.

“The pain for somebody to look into it is a concern,” said Marty, a state senator who has long watched political spending. “If you want a campaign finance system where people can track the flow of the money, we are not doing a very good job of it in this state.”

howatt@startribune.com • Twitter: @GlennHowatt

rachel.stassen-berger@startribune.com Twitter: @RachelSB

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