By Paul Downer, Community Editor
A lingering issue regarding a speeding ticket and the use of campaign funds by state Rep. Ernie Leidiger was recently put to rest by a panel of judges from the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings.
Leidiger, a first-term republican, received a speeding ticket in March of 2011 while returning home to Mayer from a late session at the capitol. He paid the fine, a total of $178, in June of 2011 with funds from his principal campaign committee, and reported the expense through his campaign treasurer Steve Nielsen as a noncampaign disbursement for "transportation."
The Minnesota DFL filed a complaint on March 1, 2012 alleging that the use of campaign funds to pay for the ticket was not allowed under state law. The state’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board ruled the following day that the payment was in fact a violation of state statute.
A separate complaint filed on March 2, 2012 alleged that the use of funds was improperly classified by the Citizens for Leidiger 2011 campaign in its year-end report as a noncampaign disbursement. The Board agreed that there was probable cause for that complaint and ordered Nielsen to pay a $300 civil penalty for knowingly certifying as true a report that omitted required information.
The Campaign Board did note, however, that the report had been amended to reclassify the payment as a campaign expenditure, so no violation remained regarding the report.
"We paid for the speeding ticket as a noncampaign expenditure because I got it on the way back from the session," said Leidiger. "As soon as we heard that, ‘Oh geez, that’s probably not allowed,’ we paid it back right away. And then the campaign finance board said it wasn’t allowable, so we got fined for that."
On May 14, a panel of three judges from the Office of Administrative Hearings reviewed the case.
According to their report, Leidiger and Nielsen argued that the speeding fine was received while "in the line of duty" since Leidiger was returning home from the capitol, and that since Leidiger is the largest contributor to his own campaign, the $178 disbursement could be viewed as a payment made with his own funds.
In spite of those arguments, the panel ruled that "the payment was not reasonably related to the conduct of an election campaign and was not a permissible noncampaign disbursement," and imposed a fine of $500 that was significantly below the maximum possible penalty of $5,000.
Why? "The violation was deliberate in nature and ill-advised, but had little or no impact on voters," the panel concluded.
"We made a mistake, simple as that," said Leidiger. "We didn’t try to hide a thing. We paid for it. We didn’t think it was a problem, we fought it and we lost."