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Judge finds probable cause in campaign finance violation complaint against City Council candidate

BEMIDJI—A Minnesota Administrative Law Judge found probable cause in a campaign finance complaint filed against one of the Bemidji City Council candidates.

Judge Barbara Case on Monday ordered that probable cause had been found in a complaint filed by Bemidji resident Robert Saxton against Don Heinonen, who's running for the At-Large City Council position. In her order, Case found probable cause that Heinonen violated two subdivisions of Minnesota statute related to campaign finance.

The complaint alleged that Heinonen submitted a campaign finance report Oct. 8 showing a $2,400 in-kind donation, without labeling the contributor's name, address, and employer/occupation of the individuals or committee. In doing so, the complaint alleged that Heinonen violated the statute requiring the contributor's information, as well as accepting an in-kind donation in excess of $600.

During a hearing Thursday, Nov. 1, Heinonen called the Oct. 8 report an oversight, and said he had since submitted a new report listing four individuals who each gave in-kind donations of $600. The in-kind donations, together totaling $2,400, went into creating a website and social media presence, titled Bemidji First, to promote Heinonen's candidacy.

However, Heinonen added during the hearing that he failed to identify the employment status of the four individuals. While on record at the hearing, Heinonen provided the employment information and Case found that Heinonen had complied with financial reporting requirements. As part of the order, Case directed Heinonen to submit an amended version of his financial report to the Office of Administrative Hearings detailing the employment information. Upon doing so, the claim related to the financial report would be dismissed.

With the other statute subdivision, though, Case found probable cause that Heinonen accepted an in-kind contribution in excess of $600 from a committee. In her order, Case stated that a committee is defined as two or more persons acting together to influence the nomination, election or defeat of a candidate.

Case stated in the order that the definition of a committee appears broad enough to include the four individuals who paid for the creation of Bemidji First. Case wrote in the order that the four equally divided the cost of expenses for establishing Bemidji First and they appear to have "acted together to influence the election of a candidate."

The four individuals listed in Heinonen's campaign report have also been documented as making in-kind contributions in the same amounts to two other candidates running for city government, Michael Beard who's seeking the Ward 2 seat and Joe Vene, who's a mayoral candidate. Both the Bemidji First website and social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, promote all three candidates.

The complaint also alleged that Heinonen had accepted a prohibited corporate contribution. However, Case found no probable cause on this claim and it was dismissed in her order.

As part of the order, the matter has been referred to the Chief Administrative Judge for assignment to a panel of three administrative law judges for an evidentiary hearing.

"I'm pleased that Judge Case found that I presented sufficient facts to establish probable cause that Mr. Heinonen violated state statute by accepting an in-kind contribution in excess of $600 from the Bemidji First committee," Saxton said in an emailed statement. "It is my hope that a hearing on the subject will bring clarity to this campaign for the benefit of our democratic system and the citizens of Bemidji."

When asked for a statement, Heinonen declined to comment.

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/.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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