Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty has now accepted full responsibility for campaign practices that a state review board found illegal. The decision could represent a substantial setback for Pawlenty, who also announced he would temporarily suspend television ads while his campaign assesses its options. But Pawlenty vows he'll vigorously press the campaign until the end.
Just one day after the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board ruled against the Pawlenty campaign and the state Republican Party, Pawlenty gathered supporters around him to accept the board's decision.
The board ruled that an estimated $800,000 in television ads produced by the party were incorrectly identified as the sort of soft-money independent expenditures that are subject to limited regulation. The board's order requires Pawlenty to count the ads as direct contributions, a decision that will eat deeply into the campaign's $2.2 million spending limit.
Pawlenty, who's run his campaign around the catch-words of accountability and trust, says accepting the board's ruling demonstrates those principles.
"Integrity is really important to me," he said. "This whole situation angers me. It frustrates me. And it gives me a lot of personal pain. But a strong leader takes responsibility. And today, I am going to take full, unequivocal responsibility for the decisions and actions that were the subject of the campaign board's decision yesterday."
Pawlenty says his interpretation of state law differs from the board's legal reasoning. But he says he's accepted its authority to rule in the matter. Pawlenty says he's fired the Washington-based media consultant who acted as the illegal link between party and the campaign. In addition, he's temporarily suspended television advertising while the campaign assesses it's financial status.
A campaign spokesman say the campaign has already spent just over $1 million. Adding the party's TV ads brings the total to just under the spending cap -- meaning the camp is dangerously near to exhausting its spending ability in the crucial final weeks of the campaign.
But Pawlenty held out hope that a soon-to-begin conciliation process between the campaign and the board could determine that the campaign isn't liable for the entire cost of the ads.
However, Pawlenty's opponents say they won't consider the matter closed unless Pawlenty charges the full amount of the ads.
"I think if they reach a resolution on it, and if he accepts total responsibility for all that money, then, yeah, it would be closed because he wouldn't have any money left. And we expect him to respect the board's decision, and we hope it's done quick," said David Ruth, the spokesman for Independence Party candidate Tim Penny.
Others are pushing for even stronger penalties. DFLer Roger Moe's campaign manager, Bill Harper, says Pawlenty's punishment should go beyond the board's order and that Pawlenty should return hundreds of thousands of public subsidies he received as a condition of accepting the spending cap.
"But he has not addressed the more than $400,000 in taxpayer money that he voluntarily received with the understanding that he would play by the rules. That money needs to be returned immediately to the general fund," said Harper.
A Pawlenty spokesman says while the campaign will comply with the board order, it has no intention of returning the public funding. The state GOP was also named in the board's decision and fined $4,000.
Spokesman Bill Walsh says the party will pay the fine without protest. If the board's decision paralyzes the Pawlenty campaign's ability to spend money, the party, presumably, remains free to provide independent expenditures on Pawlenty's behalf, provided the expenditures are truly made without the input or implied consent of the campaign.
Asked if the party would accept that responsibility, Walsh said discussing those plans would constitute the same sort of violation as the one with which the campaign is currently charged.
"That's a great question. If I answer that I break the law. That's the absurdity of all this. I can't tell you what we're going to do as regards to Tim Pawlenty's campaign in the future," Walsh said.
Pawlenty says he hopes the board and the campaign can come to a final resolution of the matter in a matter of days. Pawlenty is eager to determine how much of the party's advertising must be counted against his spending limit, and the board must still consider a fine that could rise to four times the amount of the transgression -- or roughly $3.2 million.