Report: Consultant, lawyer fees fed Minn. GOP debt

Published 12:22 pm Friday, January 20, 2012

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Lawyers, consultants and other insiders close to the Minnesota Republican Party’s former chairman benefited from the GOP’s slide into massive debt, according to a report published Friday.

Minnesota Public Radio News ( ) traced the origins of a $2 million party debt. Monetary troubles have fueled internal concerns about the GOP’s strength heading into the election year and led to an upheaval in party leadership, as GOP Chairman Tony Sutton resigned abruptly last month.

MPR dissected finance reports from 2007 forward. It found more than $1 million in payouts to a law firm, more than $270,000 to a communications firm focused on party branding and thousands more paid to politicians who were simultaneously on the campaign trail and the party payroll.

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Since Sutton’s departure, new party leadership has tried to sort out the financial mess. The GOP’s executive committee agreed Thursday night to conduct a more-exhaustive internal review.

The party could face penalties from state and federal campaign regulators over previously undisclosed expenses and debt.

Sutton, a 25-year party veteran and chairman for three years, blamed the predicament on a slowdown in party fundraising. He said he was not the sole official dealing with GOP finances, although party rules allowed him to sign off on vendor contracts and other spending.

“I wasn’t handling every invoice, I wasn’t handling every detail,” Sutton told MPR. “I was spending my time raising money and trying to do what we had to do to win elections.”

GOP activists and candidates are openly concerned that loyal donors will withhold their usual checks out of anger and the party will be otherwise hamstrung during the 2012 campaign as it tries to dig out of debt.

“Whoever our endorsed candidate is is not going to enjoy some of those perks,” said Anthony Hernandez, a candidate vying to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “The debt’s not going to be paid off before November.”

Officials said the GOP intends to part ways with its longtime law firm, Trimble and Associates. Tony Trimble, also a former Minnesota Republican Party chairman, defended the $1 million the firm collected from the party since 2008. Much of it was from two recent statewide recounts; the party’s new leaders plan to challenge some of the $330,000 still owed to Trimble for a 2010 gubernatorial recount.

Trimble said his firm only did legal work upon request and that his rates were fair.

“We bill at $250 an hour, which is a highly discounted rate,” Trimble said.

Until last week, Trimble also represented Sutton and his wife, Bridget, in a personal dispute involving their struggling Mexican restaurants.

Sutton said he let Trimble go for financial reasons.

“I’m unemployed, I can’t afford him,” he said.

Other expenses, including a $10,500 study on medical marijuana, struck GOP veterans as strange because they competed with critical electioneering efforts in the heat of a 2010 campaign.

“I was a candidate at the time and the party was dead broke,” said Pat Anderson, former state auditor and current Republican National Committeewoman. “We’re trying to win races, and the party doesn’t have money to help campaigns hardly at all, and we’re spending money (to research medical marijuana).”

Many Republicans are anxious to move on, including new chairman Pat Shortridge.

“I think most of our party is not interested in trying to drive ahead looking in the rearview mirror,” Shortridge said.

But others say Republicans would be foolish to move forward without taking a hard look at how things got so bad. Rick Weible, who serves on the GOP executive committee, is in that camp.

“There’s a reason why your car has a rearview mirror,” he said. “That rearview mirror is there for a purpose, so you can stop and take corrective action, and avoid those things from catching up to you.”