Lawmaker faces $20,000 fine for campaign fund misuse
ST. PAUL — Minnesota's campaign finance watchdog on Tuesday slapped a longtime Democrat lawmaker who is running for attorney general with $20,000 in fines, including a $15,000 personal penalty for misusing campaign funds for personal use.
The Campaign Finance Board's investigation of Rep. John Lesch's campaign formally began in 2015 but goes back to campaign activity in 2010. While inquiring about several discrepancies in campaign payments and year-end balances, the board found more than $8,700 in campaign payments made from 2010 to 2013 to Lesch's personal accounts. But even after years of interviews and subpoenas, Lesch could not provide receipts to prove that he was reimbursing himself for covering campaign expenses out of pocket, as he had claimed in filings.
"In most cases, the Committee funds transferred into Rep. Lesch's personal account were used for payments by Rep. Lesch for which there would have been insufficient funds without the deposit of the Committee funds," the board wrote in its investigation, which also hit the campaign with $5,000 for shoddy record keeping and false filings.
Lesch has 30 days to pay the civil penalties.
An eight-term Democrat from St. Paul, Lesch acknowledged shoddy bookkeeping of his campaign accounts which he faulted in part on having three different campaign treasurers during the five-year period in question. But he disputed the board's conclusion that he shifted campaign money for personal use.
"It remains based solely on the absence of receipts. I deny using any campaign funds for personal purposes," he said in a statement. "The record keeping, passage of time, and changes in campaign treasurers made it difficult to reproduce the details of transactions that occurred between four and seven years ago."
The board also discovered several other transfers to personal accounts in its investigation, but Lesch swiftly repaid those, saying they were mistakes made due to holding several accounts within the same bank.
Lesch is not the first lawmaker to fall behind on campaign finance records. After years of inquiry, the board determined this year that former Sen. Branden Petersen had also improperly used campaign funds on personal expenses, among other bookkeeping issues. Petersen resigned abruptly in 2015, later telling the board that his campaign's issues were a driving factor.
But the fines in those cases paled in comparison to the penalties levied against Lesch on Wednesday. Petersen's was required to pay a total of just $4,000 in civil penalties — and no personal fines. Candidates are generally required only to repay the amount of misspent money.
Lesch did not immediately respond to a request as to whether he would challenge the campaign finance board's order in court. In his statement, he said he was "disappointed by the Board's order but am happy to have this matter resolved."