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Otto, Anderson clash over data requests

Former Republican State Auditor Pat Anderson, who spoke at Thursday night's GOP rally at the Beltrami County Courthouse cupola, exchanged heated missives earlier in the day with current DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto over information requests made by Republicans for staff information, such as travel expenses and e-mail listings. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

State Auditor Rebecca Otto last week blasted Republicans for what she called "open-ended, burdensome data requests" to be used against her in the campaign with former State Auditor Pat Anderson.

Otto, a first-term Democrat, charged Thursday that the Minnesota Republican Party and an aligned group are using the state's Data Practices Act to make requests such as copies of calendar items and contacts, phone logs, expense reimbursements and travel expenses for Otto and appointed staff.

"I think it's really an abuse of the law, and an incredible waste of taxpayer money," said Otto. "The intent of the law is to provide the public and media with transparency, and I'm all for that. But they want to read every personal resume that has come through the office, see every document that contains the word 'election', review every phone call."

Otto said the requests "mean the taxpayer-funded staff has to step away from their important work of overseeing $20 billion in spending of tax dollars by local governments, and scan mountains of correspondence for individual words, make photocopies, and redact anything classed by law as non-public. I understand that the Republicans want to win, but this is invasive past the point of what the taxpayers should have to bear."

Republican Anderson, whom Otto defeated in 2006 and is running again this year, in an interview Thursday, accused Otto of trying to make much over what is public data and requests that she should gladly take.

"I was surprised that she would complain from her campaign about something from the office on Data Practices Act requests," Anderson said while in Bemidji with the Tom Emmer rally bus. "There's an ethical issue there because it has nothing to do with the campaign."

Otto, however, says there are only two reasons why the groups would be making such sweeping data requests.

"I have a nationally respected record, and they want to chisel away at that," the Democrat said. "Either they are fishing for a tiny bit of data they might be able to take out of context and spin in some press release or negative campaign ad, and/or they are just trying to bog the office down to keep us from getting our important oversight work done."

She said she is concerned "about staff having to stop their very important work and instead go to work as muckrakers for the Republican Party on the taxpayer dime. I think that's wrong."

Anderson, adding that her campaign had not made the requests, said she considered them normal Data Practices Act requests.

"It looks like what was requested was standard stuff," the Republican said. "It's been done by both parties, probably forever. I was very surprised to see that."

Otto said other requests included salaries of each state auditor staff member, all records and correspondence pertaining to promotions of individual staff and salary increases, resumes of all student worker applicants and intern applicants who were not accepted for positions, and all electronic documents and files sent or received with the words DFL, election, campaign, American Civil Liberties Union, and others.

Otto cited her accomplishments, including the National Excellence in Accountability Award from the National State Auditors Association, while saying Anderson "has an eight-year history of errors in financial reports, including several of her own campaign finance reports, as well as major reports from the Office of State Auditor during her term."

Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton said Thursday that Otto's attacks are "nothing more than an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that she has accomplished very little as state auditor."

It raises troubling questions, Sutton said, "about Otto's role as a taxpayer-funded public official. These requests are a pretty standard part of holding elected officials accountable. If she bristles at being held accountable, how can she hold others accountable?"

While on the campaign trail with Emmer, Anderson also issued her own statement.

"When I served as state auditor, we had numerous requests for public information and we were happy to comply," said Anderson. "The job of auditor is to help create transparency in government, to let citizens and policymakers know where the money is going. For Otto to complain about transparency and accountability, it leads one to believe what has long been known, Otto has poorly managed the office and is concerned about exposing the numerous mistakes she has made."

Anderson accused Otto of already being behind on audits that can jeopardize federal funding to counties.

"Otto is looking for an excuse to hide her incompetence," said Anderson.

In the interview, Anderson said that Otto attacked her by use of the same Data Practices Act. "Now why does she not want to do it, and what's she trying to hide? There's obviously an issue there."

It's something historically all the candidates do, she said. Asked if she had DFL requests as state auditor, Anderson said she "absolutely did. This isn't any different than what I got four years ago, and it isn't any different than what any one of us have gotten in the past."

Anderson didn't mention Otto during her rally remarks. "I am going to continue to not mention Otto. But if she's going to attack me on something even non-related, I am going to question what is she trying to hide very clearly."

"The Republicans are desperate to find something -- anything -- to create a smear campaign because I have worked in a nonpartisan way to make our state a national leader again, and have received national recognition for it," says Otto.

"Anderson has nothing to show but errors and partisan hackery, so they hope they can find something to bring me down to her level. The problem is the taxpayers are stuck paying for it, and that's wrong," Otto said.

"I don't want to get down and dirty," Anderson said. "I don't want to get into a cat fight with her. She's done very little ... I want to campaign on my message on what I want to do for Minnesota. That's what I intend to do, and frankly, ignore Otto."