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Minnesota DFL officials charged Tuesday that Antone Melton-Meaux, the top challenger to incumbent U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, skirted campaign finance laws by hiding some of his top political consultants in Tuesday’s nationally watched Democratic primary.

A Federal Election Commission complaint obtained by the Star Tribune alleges Melton-Meaux’s campaign violated federal election law by “conspiring to intentionally obscure” the identity of political consultants listed as limited liability corporations working on his challenge to Omar in a hotly contested race that has already seen each side raise more than $4 million.

“The campaign of Ilhan Omar’s primary opponent has gone against the values of the DFL Party by apparently working with vendors to set up mysterious shell companies to hide millions of dollars in spending,” DFL Chairman Ken Martin said in a statement.

Lee Hayes, a spokesman for Melton-Meaux’s campaign, called the FEC filing baseless and an attempt to distract from Omar’s own campaign finance issues, given that her campaign has directed more than $1.6 million to a D.C. firm that employs her husband as a consultant.

That case is also before the FEC. “Her campaign money is coming into her own household and she is benefiting from that,” Hayes said.

The exchange was the latest in an increasingly bitter volley of campaign salvos in a race that has divided Democrats in a traditionally liberal district that includes Minneapolis and several western suburbs.

Melton-Meaux, an attorney-mediator, has sharpened his criticism of Omar’s turbulent first term in Congress, arguing that her national profile as an outspoken progressive has done little for the Fifth Congressional District. Omar, running with the party endorsement, has questioned Melton-Meaux’s progressive credentials, citing a past critique of the Black Lives Matter movement and work for a law firm that defended companies in labor disputes.

Attacks between the two campaigns have intensified in recent weeks as the perception grows that Melton-Meaux is within striking distance of unseating Omar, the first Somali-American in Congress. The primary is expected to all but decide the general election winner, even though Omar’s national profile as a foil for the political right has fueled fundraising for the top Republican in the race, north Minneapolis businessman Lacy Johnson. He also has raised more than $4 million.

Out-of-state cash

Much of the money for all three candidates has come from out of state.

The new DFL complaint cites three companies that combined have provided nearly $1.7 million in services for what the Melton-Meaux campaign describes as direct mail, television advertising and strategic consulting.

The complaint notes that none of the three vendors provided services to any other federal candidate or political committee in the 2019-20 election cycle. Two of the three companies were registered as new businesses in the state of Delaware at the end of last year, according to a recent report in Minn­Post.

The DFL filings quote an e-mail that Melton-Meaux’s campaign sent to supporters on Sunday that sought to explain why some of his consultants were listed as LLCs, or limited liability corporations.

The Melton-Meaux e-mail states that it was necessary because the Washington-based Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the campaign arm of the House Democrats, has a policy that “blacklists” political firms that work on behalf of campaigns against Democratic incumbents.

The Melton-Meaux campaign says the approach is legal. “The LLCs receiving payments are legitimate entities, and the described purposes for the payments were accurate,” said Scott Thomas, a former FEC chairman and campaign finance counsel for the Melton-Meaux campaign.

But the DFL argues in its complaint that it violates a federal election law provision that requires campaign committees to publicly identify any person who has received a campaign expenditure in excess of $200.

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, shown in St. Paul in July.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, shown in St. Paul in July.

RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER - Star Tribune

Omar herself was the subject of an FEC complaint by a conservative group last year following allegations in a divorce filing that she was in a romantic relationship with Tim Mynett. He’s a D.C. consultant whose firm, the E Street Group, is contracted to do political work for Omar.

Mynett and Omar revealed in March that they had married. Last Friday, she defended her campaign’s payments to his firm, saying that most of the money has gone directly to TV advertising and campaign literature. Unlike the firms in Melton-Meaux’s employ, the E Street Group is an established D.C. firm with Democratic clients around the country.

The FEC has lacked a quorum of members for much of the last year, making any rapid follow-up on complaints unlikely.