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UPDATED: Report says Dayton campaign broke the law during Bemidji trip

In this file photo, Gov. Mark Dayton speaks at Bemidji State University on Oct. 24, 2012, to show support for four DFL candidates in the November 2012 election. Dayton is flanked by state Sen. Tom Saxhaug (left) and state Rep. John Persell. (Pioneer file photo)

By Zach Kayser and Don Davis

Forum News Service

BEMIDJI -- Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton broke state law by allowing a campaign staffer to travel on a state-owned airplane during a 2012 trip to Bemidji and International Falls, a report from the Legislative Auditor’s office said Thursday.

“Since the campaign official did not travel with the Governor to participate in state government business, it was a violation of state law and MnDOT policy for the campaign official to travel on the state airplane,” the report from Legislative Auditor James Nobles said.  

However, Nobles said in an interview that the violation did not constitute a criminal act and he wouldn’t be referring it to the county attorney’s office.

“I don’t see this rising to the level of a criminality,” he said.

Rather, Nobles said the next step was for the Legislature to establish laws that clarify whether it is legal for the governor and lieutenant governor to use state planes for campaign purposes.

In response to the auditor’s findings, the Dayton administration pledged not to repeat the violation.

“This was an error and will not happen again,” Dayton chief of staff Tina Smith acknowledged in a letter attached to the auditor’s report.

She said that, unless the law changes, the governor will continue his practice of reimbursing the state when making political stops as part of an official state trip. However, she said, the governor's campaign will charter a private plane when Dayton’s trips are only for political purposes.

The auditor reported that Dayton flew in a state plane 55 times from when he took office on Jan. 3, 2011, through June 30, 2013. The controversy stems from three plane trips Dayton took fall 2012 that mixed political and state business.

Critics brought to state officials' attention the flight from St. Paul to Bemidji and on to International Falls. Dayton held one official meeting in Bemidji about wording on a sign and a political event there and just a political event in International Falls.

The auditor also looked into a Sept. 28, 2012, flight to Willmar and a Sept. 20, 2012, trip to Brainerd. All the trips included a mix of official and political events.

Dayton's campaign paid nearly two-thirds of the $3,000 cost of the Bemidji-International Falls trip and half of the Brainerd and Willmar trips.

“In no circumstance do taxpayers bear any costs for a state plane used for the governor’s political travel,” Smith said.

The Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a conservative group, raised the travel issue after it learned a top political aide traveled with the governor to Bemidji and International Falls, but there were no official aides on the trip.

Deputy Dayton Chief of Staff Bob Hume said that the governor would have flown to Bemidji to discuss the sign wording dispute even without political events on his schedule because the issue was important to those in the area. Hume said that Dayton has made many similar trips around the state. The sign dispute was between the city of Bemidji and the Minnesota Department of Transportation on the wording on the Paul Bunyan Trail Bridge. MNDOT had concerns about public safety, considering the sign would be adjacent to stop lights on one of the busiest intersections in town. The compromise allowed a Bemidji branding on the sign, according to previous reports.

Ben Golnik of the coalition distributed copies of a document showing that a top Dayton aide arranging for the flight certified that it was "for official business only and is in the interests of the state."

The coalition and Common Cause Minnesota urged Dayton to follow the auditor's recommendation of putting more distance between politics and official business.

“Minnesota citizens deserve the highest level of conduct from their elected officials,” said Jeremy Schroeder, Common Cause Minnesota executive director. “Furthermore, a clear line must be drawn between campaigning for re-election and serving the people of Minnesota. It is disappointing that the office of Gov. Dayton blurred that line and further states that the current policy is enough.”

Nobles’ report pointed out that while the governor’s use of a state-owned car for almost all ground travel has become common practice in recent years, there are no specific regulations regarding the use of state airplanes.

Nobles suggested that the Legislature clarify state law.

The auditor said that if lawmakers decide to change the law, they "should expressly require reimbursement from the appropriate political organization."