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Sviggum: Taxpayer-funded brochures falls on his shoulders, Gimse says he was unaware flier had donation link

Steve Sviggum1 / 2
Willmar Sen. Joe Gimse addresses an audience of some 250 people Feb. 7 during the Republican caucus at Willmar Middle School. Tribune photo by Gary Miller2 / 2

WILLMAR -- Sen. Joe Gimse, of Willmar, was one of 15 Minnesota Republican senators who requested that taxpayer-funded brochures be made available for him to distribute at last week's precinct caucuses.

Gimse did not actually receive them in time because of insufficient postage, and the package of brochures he requested was returned to his office in St. Paul.

Those brochures were the subject of a DFL complaint Tuesday claiming some GOP senators used public funds to print campaign materials.

State law does not allow the use of state equipment for campaign purposes.

Senate Communications Director Steve Sviggum later apologized and said he's taking full blame for printing the literature.

"This is my fault and I goofed up and we tried to take care of it as soon as alerted," he said in an interview. "I am responsible for this and I should bear the brunt of the consequences." Sviggum, a former Republican House speaker from Kenyon, said no other staff members or senators are responsible for the flier.

Gimse, who had requested 100 of the brochures, said he looked over the flier before it was published by the Senate communications department and he didn't see anything wrong with the information.

Gimse said the brochures addressed issues facing the Legislature and he claimed the material was "non-partisan." He said the fliers did not ask people to vote for him or to contribute to his campaign.

Gimse, however, was not aware that the flier included a link to a website that solicited GOP campaign donations.

Sviggum said that website link was the only problem with the flier that he could see.

The literature likely will be used, without the donation link, in future town hall and other meetings held by Republican senators, Sviggum said.

"The important thing is what the information is and what the information says," he said. "The literature was specifically and verifiably a legitimate outreach. It was legitimately a constituent information piece."

That's not how Senate DFL Caucus Leader Tom Bakk, of Cook, saw it.

"The printed materials I have seen are campaign fliers that were clearly intended to be distributed at Republican precinct caucuses to persuade attendees to support Republican incumbents," said Bakk in a statement issued Tuesday.

"It is evident that the fliers in question have a campaign purpose to directly influence voting, as defined in Minnesota's Fair Campaign Practices Act. I believe it is a violation of the policies of the Minnesota Senate, and the state's criminal code," said Bakk, adding the DFL Caucus paid private-sector printers to produce their fliers.

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings, claiming the Republican senators handed out the fliers in violation of state campaign laws.

Sviggum and Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said a Senate attorney had approved the literature before it was distributed at the precinct caucuses.

Sviggum said, however, the GOP Senate's campaign organization will pay the $47 the literature cost to print.

Filing the complaint cost the DFL $3 more than the cost of printing the literature.

Gimse, who was in committee meetings all day Tuesday and had not been aware of Sviggum's apology, said there were no intentional efforts to do anything improper by having the Senate produce the fliers.

Gimse said he didn't know how to respond to a question of whether $47 covered the entire cost of producing, copying and mailing the brochures.

Because of the postage mistake on Gimse's package of fliers, he didn't have them to distribute last week in Willmar.

"I got the package here and they're kind of worthless now," Gimse said in a telephone interview from St. Paul.

But he said perhaps the rules pertaining to taxpayer-produced materials should be reviewed to clear up confusion for the future.

For Sviggum, the literature problem added to another ethics issue he faces as a University of Minnesota regent. The chairwoman of the regents has ordered an investigation about whether he is violating university policy by serving in a partisan office while also serving on the university's governing board.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.