Minnesota Republican Party leaders are urging party unity today as they face a frustrated group of party activists who are wondering how the party ended up with a debt of nearly $2 million.
Roughly 350 GOP delegates are attending the State Central Committee meeting in St. Cloud this morning. They are scheduled to elect a new party chair but it comes as party officials are disclosing that the party's finances are much worse than previously reported.
"I know we have a trust issue," RNC Committeeman Jeff Johnson told the delegates. He said the party is working to disclose everything to ensure greater accountability.
"Even though that might not be politically smart, we decided we had to do that," Johnson said.
Johnson and Mike Vekich, an accountant who voluntarily did a financial review of the party's finances, discussed the party's debt to the delegates. They released the information on Friday with the hopes of giving delegates enough information to digest the information.
They say the party is roughly $1.9 million in debt. It includes $415 thousand in unreported debts, $717 in legal fees from the 2010 gubernatorial recount, $120 thousand in remaining FEC fines and $430 in previously reported debt.
Party leaders say they don't believe they're obligated to pay the legal fees from the recount but say "it's under legal review."
Members of the party's executive committee ramped up a review of the party's finances this month after Tony Sutton abruptly resigned earlier this month. Sutton hasn't returned calls to discuss the party's finances but issued a statement saying 2010 was a hard fought election in a difficult fundraising environment.
He has reportedly signed a letter obligating the party to pay the legal bills from the 2010 recount but party officials dispute that.
Vekich announced that the legal fees are $330 thousand to Trimble and Associates, $212 thousand to Briggs and Morgan and $175 thousand to Brian Cave and Associates.
Some delegates said they wanted greater detail.
"Where are the receipts? Where are the vouchers?," Bloomington delegate Jim Taylor asked party leaders. "I want to examine it now. I want to see it all. And can the other past chairs be held personally liable?"
Party leaders didn't say if they'll sue former leaders over the party's finances. They also said they are working with the Federal Election Commission with the hopes that the fines are not as severe because they're being open and honest.
"The hope is if we're coming to them that it would be a little bit more favorable," Johnson said.
Other delegates expressed frustration that the party's debt could be worse.
"Are all of the unknowns known?" Spring Lake Park resident Brian Senn asked.
Vekich said he believed they know all of the party's debts.
"There may be some unknowns but I believe the bulk of what is known is known," Vekich quipped.
Vekich also said they are working to see whether the party is responsible for any payments to a corporation created to host the Midwest Leadership Conference. Acting Chair Kelly Fenton also said she has written documentation that the party isn't responsible for any legal bills related to redistricting which was set up as a corporation as well.
Several delegates also questioned why a complete financial audit was not done on the party's books.
"We're going to have to find some money to do that," Johnson said about doing an audit. "It won't be cheap."
Johnson said, however, that they may do a spot check of any questionable receipts that have already been reported.
Acting Chair Kelly Fenton started the meeting by urging the delegates to come together as they head into 2012. It's a critical election year since the race for President, a U.S. Senate race, all eight congressional races and every legislative seat is on the ballot.
Fenton, who was elected Deputy Chair earlier this month, was forced to become Acting Chair when Sutton stepped down.
Fenton warned that the party has to do things differently in light of the party's difficult finances.
"We can't be all things to all people," Fenton said. She said the party needs to work better with grassroots activists and groups.
Republican delegates elected political consultant Pat Shortridge as the next party chair of the Minnesota Republican Party. Shortridge won on the first ballot, receiving 66 percent of the vote. He defeated Second Congressional District Chair Terry McCall and businessman Todd McIntyre.
Shortridge will have some heavy lifting to do. He'll be expected to eliminate a party debt that could be as high as $2 million at a time when lower level contributions are down. Republicans are also heading into the 2012 election without a top tier U.S. Senate candidate to challenge DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
During his speech to delegates, Shortridge said he's optimistic the party will reverse its recent shortcomings.
"We have some management and structural and organizational issues that we can fix and fix them we will," Shortridge said. "Starting this afternoon and for the next ten months and the next ten years so we grow this party to be the long-term governing majority in Minnesota."
Shortridge has not specifically addressed how he would fix the party's debt. He said, however, that he would focus on identifying key Republican voters, improve the party's message and improve party research for candidates.
"We have to get back to the blocking and tackling that make us so successful and lets our guys win at the polls," Shortridge said.
Shortridge also said his top priorities are protecting Republican control of the Minnesota Legislature and protecting the four Republican incumbents in the U.S. House.