BEMIDJI-A campaign financial complaint made against a candidate for Bemidji City Council was reviewed by a Minnesota administrative law judge Thursday.
The complaint was initially submitted by Robert Saxton on Oct. 23 in regard to a campaign finance report from At-Large candidate Don Heinonen filed on Oct. 8 on the city's website. In the complaint, Saxton alleges Heinonen reported an in-kind donation of $2,400 and failed to list the name or address of the contributor, a requirement of Minnesota statute.
Additionally, Saxton claimed that the contribution exceeds the $600 limit set by statute, and alleged that the contribution was made by the company Pinnacle Marketing Group, another violation of statute.
"As a citizen and a voter and a resident of Bemidji, I'm concerned with clean and fair elections," Saxton said during a probable cause hearing via teleconference Thursday before the state's Office of Administrative Hearings. "I'm concerned with a level playing field among candidates. For me, that in part requires proper disclosures and following campaign finance laws. I don't think Mr. Heinonen has done this."
During the hearing, Heinonen referenced a revised campaign finance report he submitted to the city on Oct. 22. The revised report showed that Heinonen didn't receive a $2,400 in-kind donation from a single contributor, but rather four donations of $600 from different individuals, he said.
"I believe there's been some misunderstanding that needs some clarification," Heinonen said. "First and foremost, I have never received, nor accepted, a campaign donation from Pinnacle Publishing or Marketing. I submitted a third report, dated Oct. 22, which specifically states names addresses and contributions toward the $2,400 paid to Pinnacle Marketing for their services. I believe it was an oversight on my part, that I had missed that stuff on an earlier report that I submitted on Oct. 8."
The services from Pinnacle Marketing Group were to create a website and social media plan for "Bemidji First," which is the campaign slogan for Heinonen, along with two other candidates, Michael Beard for Bemidji Ward 2 and Joe Vene for Bemidji Mayor. According to campaign finance reports on the city's website, both Beard and Vene also received in-kind donations of $600 from the same four individuals that went to the online information platform.
However, Heinonen told the Pioneer on Thursday that creating the website and social media presence was to be informational only and no committee or organization titled Bemidji First was created. The Bemidji First website has the disclaimer of "Paid for by Concerned Bemidji & Beltrami County Citizens," which references the donors to the three individual candidates that have been listed in their campaign financial reports.
"For some time, I and other residents of Bemidji have been asking about the funding for the 'Bemidji First' candidates without response," Saxton told the Pioneer in an emailed statement after the hearing. "In fact, some of us were attacked anonymously, then blocked by the 'Bemidji First' Twitter handle for asking such questions. The only recourse left to me was to file a complaint against Mr. Heinonen, alleging multiple campaign finance violations. No matter how any of us feels personally about an individual candidate, dark money or corporate financing of a political campaign should be alarming to all of us."
With the hearing complete, the administrative law judge will now make a determination on whether there is no probable cause that the violation occurred and must be dismissed, or there is probable cause that the violation of law has occurred. For either scenario, the judge will prepare a written decision to be sent to each party, typically in three to seven days.
In the instance a violation has occurred, the matter is scheduled for an evidentiary hearing before a panel of three administrative law judges.
Campaign financial reports for all candidates running for municipal government are available on the city's website and can be found in the Elections and Voting section under the Government tab. The city of Bemidji's website is https://www.ci.bemidji.mn.us/.