It's been a lousy six months in the life of the Minnesota GOP.
Like an awful lot of Minnesota Republicans, I participate to try to work toward government policy that is fiscally sound and respects individual liberty - not because I personally feel I can bring any insights into the efficient operation of the party apparatus itself. For the record, I offer no such insights; I stay on top of my household budget via the grace of God, a decent job and YNAB. A business? Never tried it. Doubt it'd work.
That's why we - and by "we", I mean "the party at large", as opposed to "Mitch Berg and others", since as a precinct convener in 2009 I had as much impact on the election of the party chair then as I do now with no party office whatsoever - elect someone to run the party. But to the extent I supported anyone, I did it in large part based on the things that a state party chair is supposed to do: Raise money and run a business.
Tony Sutton is quite a fund-raiser. And he has run a business or two.
Anyway, the MNGOP is a mess, and a bunch of very motivated people have spent the last six months trying to un-bumfuzzle the whole thing.
Henco Commissioner Jeff Johnson led a group of people - all of whom were by no means huge fans of Tony Sutton - and have released their initial report.
A report from the Minnesota Republican Party on its troubled finances delivered a frank admission of “misreporting… questionable decision-making… and lack of accountability.”
The good news, according Jeff Johnson, chair of party’s financial oversight committee, is “for me the fact that we didn’t find any evidence that people were stealing money was reassuring.”
Which doesn't mean there aren't big questions to be answered:
Among the revelations were payments of $18,000 to an investigator for research on the legalization of marijuana. According to the report, the investigator, Tim Goar, also helped with media relations, but “Goar claims to have very few written reports and did not think he had saved any of his work. He says he had… only a verbal agreement with [Ryan] Griffin,” the party’s executive director. The report adds: “We were unable to successfully contact Griffin.”
Griffin’s name, and his apparent disappearing act, comes up several times. “Some of Ryan Griffin’s expense reports lacked documentation…. We were unable to successfully contact Griffin,” according to the report.
Griffin was paid $14,000 over his regular party salary for “legal services” and “legal advice.” But, the report noted again, “We were unable to locate any documentation detailing the services provided and were unable to successfully contact Griffin for more information regarding this issue.”
While there are those who will say "Oh, yeah? I thought you said there was no stealing? Huh? Huh? Huh?" I think the responsible response is that Johnson's group are not criminal investigators; they are accountants. They accounted for what they could, and raised the rest as questions to be answered in the next step.
This next bit will no doubt set the conspiracy-mongers to "puree":
The report revealed that spinning off corporate entities was a common practice for the party. The party’s Midwest Leadership Conference in October was run under the auspices of MLC, Inc., which owes more than $26,000, primarily to the DoubleTree Hotel.
This is a fairly common practice in business; spin off separate entities to isolate the accounting (and, in a pinch, the debt). Is it ethical when the money's not there to pay for it? That's a valid question.
Johnson claims the expenses that led to the party’s $1.3 million debt offered “no big surprises because all the items we had known about” before the review. Still, some of the numbers are eye-popping -- like $180,000 paid to a communications firm for a re-branding project, with more than $50,000 yet unpaid.
But the party’s review was designed to deliver “just the facts, not the judgment whether something was wise or not wise,” said Johnson.
At any rate, the party seems to have managed to trim (according to one account ) half a million off its debt; with the rest, it's heading in the right direction. It's bad, but probably salvageable:
While the report was less than comforting in assessing the party’s shortcomings, Johnson voiced some optimism. “The simple fact is that most of these issues can be addressed by changes in our structure,” he said.
As we've noted in this space, not everyone is convinced. Hell, I don't have the knowledge, in and of myself, to be authoritatively convinced or not. Just like three years ago.
Still, it's my hunch we're getting to the bottom of it. My hunch and $2 will get you a cup of coffee, of course, but there you go.
The report will not satisfy everyone, Johnson acknowledged. “There’s a small group of folks that want a full forensic audit,” he said, but the party can’t afford that.
I don't know what a "full forensic audit" costs - but a cursory examination shows it's a lot of money. And "Forensic Audits" focus on finding fraud (sort of - indeed, the definition of the term itself seems to be under some debate), it might - might, maybe - be overkill for what the MNGOP needs, even if it could afford another 5-6 figure professional consulting bill right now.
And the GOP's State Central Committee - the "Board of Directors", as it were - made that call at its meeting last December, in a majority vote of its elected members. And it's their decision, right or wrong. Not yours. Not mine.
But here's an idea (and it's not mine, not by a long shot): All of you who want a forensic audit? Raise the money, and pay for it! Come up with the money it'd take to forensically audit 3-5 years worth of books for an organization the size of the MNGOP (and from what I read, you'd do well to get that for less than $50,000) and commit it to the job!
Actions speak louder than words!
That, or get in there and find actual evidence that Johnson's investigation lacks in some key.
I'm interested - very - in getting the GOP's shop cleaned up. I'm not interested in paying a lot of money donated by a lot of ma and pa donors in order to put a pelt on someone's wall unless there's at least a whiff of smoke. Six months ago, it seemed pretty plausible. Today? I'll take some convincing.
Bring the smoke, the money, or the State Central votes.
I just haven't seen it yet.