By Clint Riese
Forest Lake Times
Last fall, State Rep. Bob Barrett (R-Lindstrom) maintained a seat in the legislature thanks to a narrow victory over former State Senator Rick Olseen (DFL-Sunrise Township).
The election, however, did not mark the candidates’ only bout. A different contest went in favor of Olseen last week, as the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) ordered Barrett and his campaign committee to pay a $1,000 fine for distributing a flier with false information about Olseen in the days leading up to the election.
The mailing, sent to voters in newly formed District 32B, among other statements said that “Bob’s opponent didn’t serve on the Education committee while a state senator even though our schools need help.”
In fact, Olseen served on the Senate’s Education Policy Committee from 2007-2008.
A three-member panel of judges concluded Barrett and his team prepared and disseminated false campaign material with reckless disregard as to whether it was false.
Barrett learned of the panel’s findings Monday and expressed regret in an interview with the Times.
“They’re the experts,” he said. “I respect their decision and apologize to Mr. Olseen.”
In a submission to the panel dated Jan. 24, Barrett detailed how he and/or his campaign committee members used the state’s legislative website to fact-check the flier but did not “uncover” Olseen’s committee membership.
On Monday, Barrett said that at the time, he had in mind the second half of Olseen’s term, as that was when the North Branch School District adopted a four-day week model. In any case, Barrett said he and his team attempted to verify Olseen’s membership throughout the term.
“I looked it up and didn’t see his membership, but obviously, according to the judge, I should have,” Barrett told the Times. “It was an honest mistake, and shouldn’t have happened…I remember looking and I remember confirming that particular bullet point, and we were just wrong.”
Olseen wonders how the mailing might have affected the voting Nov. 6, though he is quick to add he is content position as a field representative for U.S. Congressman Rick Nolan.
Barrett did not recall the document’s mailing list. If it was sizable and even 1 percent of recipients changed their vote, Olseen said, it may have been the tipping point in the election that came down to fewer than 400 votes.
“I think it’s important that elected officials and candidates understand there’s a responsibility on their part when they put information out there that’s incorrect,” Olseen said Monday.
He also worries that the punishment is not strong enough to ensure those running for office stand behind all campaign material.
The OAH is an independent tribunal within the executive branch of the state’s government. Under its Administrative Law branch, judges preside in hearings on a broad array of matters, from fair campaign practices to utility regulation.
In this case, the panel waved an evidentiary hearing following an agreement between the parties to proceed without it.
The judges in their memorandum painted the matter as cut and dried.
“As Mr. Olseen pointed out, and Respondents did not dispute, legislative committee memberships are listed on many state government and political websites, and in numerous reference materials,” the memorandum stated. “Because Respondents made the specific claim that Mr. Olseen did not serve on an education committee while a member of the Senate, they are charged with knowing Mr. Olseen’s committee memberships.”
The panel also found “troubling” a suggestion by Barrett that Olseen was “using public resources and this judicial process to obtain his personal goal.”
The judges concluded, “Any individual has the right to file a complaint under the Fair Campaign Practices Act if they believe a person or committee has violated a provision of the Act…Mr. Olseen’s complaint is grounded in law and fact and should not be viewed as an inappropriate use of public resources or this administrative process.”
The judges came to the decision there is clear and convincing evidence Barrett and his campaign committee violated Minnesota Statute 211B.06, and observe the violation of that statute is a misdemeanor.