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$500 fine resolves campaign complaint

Builders group unknowingly violated law with Web link

By Jeffrey Pieters

jpieters@postbulletin.com

A Fair Campaign Practices Act violation complaint filed on behalf of Rochester City Council President John Hunziker has been resolved in Hunziker's favor. Now, all of the parties involved say they are eager to put the matter behind them.

"I think it's time to put it to bed," Hunziker said.

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A three-judge panel reviewing a claim that the Rochester Area Builders organization illegally posted a link to the campaign Web site of Hunziker's challenger, Dennis Hanson, sided with Hunziker.

But, owing to concurrent findings that the builders group did not knowingly violate the law, the judges imposed only a $500 fine upon the builders organization, intended to recoup some of the administrative costs of the legal proceeding. The maximum administrative fine for the offense is $5,000, and, if pursued criminally, a $40,000 fine would have been possible.

Tom Lemke, a member of Hunziker's committee, represented the campaign at a judicial panel hearing Monday in Minneapolis.

He said the builders organization posted an advertisement for Hanson's campaign, and a link to Hanson's Web site, www.denny2004.com, from July 26 to Oct. 1, when the builders removed the ad and link after learning of the complaint.

The builders' Web site referred 1,161 visitors to Hanson's site, or fewer than 2 percent of its visitors over that period.

It's impossible to know whether, or how much, Hanson benefited from that exposure, Lemke said. His hope in filing the complaint was to bring at least an equal amount of exposure to Hunziker. Hunziker does not have a campaign Web site.

It's also hard to tell whether Hunziker benefited from media coverage of his complaint, Lemke said.

"Since we don't have polling information, it's hard to tell," Lemke said. "I think it has benefited John slightly."

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Jon Cravath, president of the Rochester Area Builders, said he was disappointed the two sides were unable to come to a private resolution and resorted to settling their differences before judges.

A settlement offer from Hunziker's campaign asked the builders to participate in a "scripted news conference," something that was unacceptable to his group, Cravath said.

"All along, it (the complaint) was just a publicity ploy," Cravath said. Now, "hopefully they can focus on some of the issues rather than some of the imaginary harms done."

Hanson, who denied knowledge of the illegal link to his site, said he, too, is eager to put the dispute behind him.

"Hopefully it's over and done with and we can move on," he said.

Certain nonprofits are prohibited, under state law, from providing material support -- money, property or services -- to political candidates.

Some nonprofits are exempted from that limitation. Those include nonprofits that do not operate for a business purpose, that do not have shareholders or others who claim organizational assets or earnings, and nonprofits that were not established by businesses or labor unions, and which do not accept "significant" contributions from businesses or labor unions.

The builders' attorney, Peter Coyle, sought protection under the exemption clause, but the judges rejected that defense.

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The order noted that violating the state's ban on corporate political contributions is "one of the more potentially serious violations" of campaign law.

But it noted that the builders' infraction did not seem to be willful, the organization corrected its mistake immediately, there was no history of past violations, and the organization did not gain economically from its violation.

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