A state data practices opinion on Tuesday said campaign correspondence found in Pete Stauber’s county email account ought to be reviewable by the public.
“Correspondence between elected officials and organizations is not meant to be classified as private,” the Minnesota Department of Administration said in a three-page memo leading up to its opinion.
During a public records request last spring, the Minneapolis Star Tribune had sought emails between Stauber, the Republican candidate in the 8th Congressional District race, and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The county turned up 15 emails, but has refused to share the contents by citing state law and the privacy between an elected official and an individual.
Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner and retired Duluth police officer, has been campaigning for Congress for 16 months. The topic of his emails emerged in September. Commissioner Matthew Massman of the Department of Administration issued the opinion, having not seen the contents of the emails.
“If the emails that are the subject of this opinion request are correspondence between County Commissioner Stauber and a representative of the NRCC,” Massman concluded, “the data are public and the County did not respond appropriately to the Star Tribune’s request under Minnesota Statutes Chapter 13.”
The county is not bound to react to the opinion, and its attorneys have argued against the Department of Administration’s interpretation of what it means to be a protected individual in this case. County attorneys have even requested that the department overturn related opinions.
While not binding, such opinions are typically given weight in court.
“We are pleased with the opinion and think that it follows the plain meaning of the law,” Star Tribune Media Company General Counsel Randy M. Lebedoff said.
The county was reviewing the opinion “as we consider our next steps,” St. Louis County spokesperson Dana Kazel said, commenting no further.
Democrat Joe Radinovich’s campaign was quick to react to the opinion. Radinovich was the subject of a 15-point deficit in the latest New York Times poll this week.
“The public deserves to know what sort of campaign work Pete Stauber was doing while he was being paid by St. Louis County taxpayers using St. Louis County resources,” said Radinovich campaign spokesperson Bennett Smith.
The Department of Administration opinion said a person acting on behalf of an “artificial person such as a corporation” was serving as an agent of the larger group.
“Any correspondence between Commissioner Stauber and a party that communicates on behalf of the NRCC is presumptively public,” the state said.
Earlier this month, the Office of County Attorney Mark Rubin submitted its six-page interpretation of the matter to St. Louis County. The county attorney’s office argued for the state to uphold St. Louis County’s decision to keep the emails private.
“Emails between Commissioner Stauber and individuals (natural persons) are not public under the clear and unambiguous language (of the law),” wrote assistant county attorney Nick Campanario, “even if the individuals were not acting as private citizens.”
Stauber and the NRCC continued Tuesday to ignore the topic of emails and declined to address News Tribune requests to share the emails in light of the new information. Elected officials are prohibited by county policy from using county funds, equipment, supplies, employees, or facilities in support of their own campaigns.
The county has previously said that it had reviewed the 15 emails brought to light in the Star Tribune report and was “satisfied that no investigation or further review was warranted.” Commissioner Keith Nelson, president of the board, has called the pursuit of the emails “a nothing complaint.”
The county’s position to keep the emails private has been the subject of public debate on the county board - coming up twice before having the topic shut down as official business with a convincing vote Sept. 25.
The Department of Administration had until Nov. 14 to share its opinion, leaving open the possibility it not come until after the Nov. 6 election.
Stauber and Radinovich are in a topsy turvy race which took multiple turns already this week.
The Radinovich campaign reported more than $1.2 million in donations to the feds on Monday - $665,000 more than Stauber’s quarterly report to the Federal Election Commission.
But a second New York Times poll over the weekend had Stauber up 15 points over Radinovich among more than 500 people surveyed. Stauber was favored by 49 percent of respondents, ahead of Radinovich (34) and undecided (13). The sudden gap - from 1-point a few weeks ago - was a leading topic of blog and internet think pieces.
In addition, the NRCC forwarded to media members television scheduling information on Tuesday that seemed to show the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee moving more than $800,000 in advertising spending away from the 8th District and into Minnesota Districts 1 and 2.
“The DCCC is giving up on MN-08,” NRCC spokesperson Maddie Anderson said in an email.
The DCCC was quick to come back.
“How the DCCC chooses to invest in individual races changes week by week and we aren’t going to reveal our playbook,” DCCC spokesperson Rachel Irwin said. “Joe Radinovich is running a strong campaign to deliver for hardworking families like his own.”
The Stauber campaign kept attention off the emails and on their rival.
Said spokesperson Caroline Tarwid, “As Pete continues to blanket the 18-county district, meeting and visiting with as many voters as he can, Joe Radinovich is welcome to focus on his floundering campaign with yet another desperate smear on the very same day the DCCC announced it had given up on his race.”