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DFL'ers defend language of campaign flyer

ST. PAUL -- Rep. Tim Kelly ousted his Democratic state House opponent from office in November, but that didn't end a behind-the-scenes political courtroom battle.

A panel of administrative law judges Thursday heard arguments stemming from claims that a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party campaign printed false statements about the Red Wing Republican.

The three-judge panel is expected to await additional written testimony and closing attorneys' remarks before issuing an opinion.

If a violation is found, the panel can issue a reprimand, impose a penalty of up to $5,000 and possibly refer the case to a county attorney's office.

Republicans went on the assault in late October after House Democrats published a flyer alleging Kelly was "under investigation for accepting an illegal campaign contribution from a corporation."

The Democrats' allegation was in reference to a Red Wing man's complaint logged just days earlier, claiming Kelly accepted two illegal corporate contributions in the form of unpaid advertisements in Goodhue County-area publications. A judge decided the complaint -- filed by Roger Sween -- deserved a probable cause hearing. The allegations were dismissed days later at that hearing.

House Republicans filed a countersuit on Oct. 31, alleging state Democrats violated Minnesota law by using the phrase "under investigation" to describe the process leading to Administrative Law Judge Kathleen Sheehy's order for a probable cause hearing.

Republicans claimed Kelly, who defeated then-Rep. Sandy Wollschlager, never was under investigation. They also complained that because the DFL distributed the flyer on the heels of Sween's complaint -- and before the probable cause hearing -- Democrats knew the "under investigation" statement was false, or communicated it with reckless disregard as to whether it was false.

Administrative Law Judge Bruce Johnson advanced the case to Thursday's hearing, over which he presided.

The hearing centered on testimony from Sween and Melissa Parker, the House DFL's former campaign director.

Sween said Thursday that he had e-mailed the magazine publishers and Wollschlager in September, expressing his disapproval of an article featuring Kelly and his parents. Wollschlager, a Cannon Falls Democrat, responded, allegedly telling Sween that the article may constitute "a more serious matter," he said.

Sween testified that he later signed the complaint of his own volition, but at the behest of Wollschlager and Parker.

Attorneys for the House Republican caucus pressed Parker on the timing of the events. She admitted to soliciting Sween's signature for the prepared complaint against Kelly and the publishers of Today magazine.

Parker stood behind a decision to describe Kelly's status as being "under investigation."

"There was an inquiry as to whether he had accepted illegal campaign contributions," she said. "I believe he was under investigation by the Office of Administrative Hearings."

She said a direct mailing had been drafted aligning Kelly with GOP leaders, accusing them of bowing to special interests. After Sween filed the complaint, the focus of the mailing shifted to the OAH process involving Kelly and the publisher, Parker said.

"We look for ways to make it more specific or stronger," she said of campaign message.

Parker said another DFL campaign staffer likely fed the information to the party's direct mail vendor in wording the "under investigation" phrase. She denied, however, any connection between the string of events.

Sheehy, one of the panelists, on Thursday pointed out the timing of Sween's complaint, the release of the direct mailing and "what it suggests."

"They are two separate incidences," Parker said. "They do not connect."