Amid internal controversies over the Republican Party of Minnesota’s outstanding debts following state Chair Tony Sutton’s resignation last week, party officers and insiders have maintained that the state GOP is not legally required to pay back nearly $500,000 in legal fees racked up during the 2010 gubernatorial election recount.
But although it was apparently unknown to them, a top GOP recount attorney says that claim is false.
On Wednesday one of the GOP attorneys on the recount, Tony Trimble, told PIM that then-RPM Chairman Sutton signed an agreement legally obliging the party to cover the full cost of the recount legal fees, reportedly around $450,000. And late Wednesday afternoon, Sutton confirmed the existence of an agreement that he says he does not recall disclosing to other party officials. But Sutton went on to claim that he believes the party is only responsible for the debt in the event that the recount fund in question, incorporated as Count Them All Properly Inc., ceases to exist.
“As long as the recount fund exists,” Sutton said, “that’s the legal entity responsible, period. At least that’s my impression.”
Sutton said that prior to his resignation, he recommended working out a monthly payment plan to retire the debt currently held by Count Them All Properly. But when pressed as to who was responsible for leading that effort, he replied, “I don’t know at this point.”
Asked if he had disclosed the existence of a written agreement regarding the recount debt to other top GOP officials, Sutton answered: “I’m not sure I ever talked to them about it, quite frankly.”
But Trimble claimed that the agreement — which he declined to provide to PIM, citing attorney/client privilege — was not at all ambiguous regarding the Republican Party’s bottom-line responsibility to pay the fees.
“We have a written agreement with the Republican Party of Minnesota to pay that fee, and as chairman, Tony Sutton signed the agreement,” Trimble said. “[The Republican Party is] fully committed to pay that fee — not a little of it, all of it.”
Speaking to PIM reporters for a story about party finances this week (“Sutton resignation puts focus on state GOP debt, discord”), multiple members of the state GOP executive committee said Sutton repeatedly told members the party was not legally required to pay the recount funds, and that all recount work was separate from the actions of the party.
“I’ll tell you what has been told to the executive committee: The party has no legal liability on the recount fund debt,” executive committee member Scott Dutcher said earlier this week. “I personally asked [Tony Sutton] about that question numerous times and every time [the answer was] that the party has no legal liability.”
RPM Secretary/Treasurer David Sturrock echoed that sentiment in an interview with PIM/Capitol Report earlier this week, as did former Deputy Party Chair Michael Brodkorb, who stepped down in October to work on state Sen. Mike Parry’s run for Congress.
Contacted about Trimble’s assertion on Wednesday afternoon, Sturrock said he was not aware the party had entered into such an agreement. “This is new information to me,” he said. “I’d like to know more about the information involved before I can have any opinion on it.”
Brodkorb, when asked about Trimble’s claim at the Capitol Wednesday, appeared visibly disconcerted. “It is the first time that I was made aware of such a document,” he said. “It was always presented in executive committee… and in statements by our secretary/treasurer that this was a separate legal fund and that the party was not responsible for those recount bills. This document completely contradicts the public statements that were made.”
He continued: “I’m assuming that these documents are valid and accurate. I’m not making any presumption that the documents are not accurate. Literally when I spoke to Secretary/Treasurer Sturrock a few moments ago, this was the first I’d ever heard about it.”
Asked later if he thought Sutton may have deceived him, Brodkorb chose his words carefully. “I’m very loyal to Tony,” he said. “I’m still recovering from the information that I’ve heard here. … I need to have a dialogue with him. Clearly to say that I am shocked is an understatement.”
The recount costs would only add to an already daunting debt load facing the party. At the end of October, the RPM had unpaid bills of more than $500,000, according to the party’s most recent FEC filing. That doesn’t include a recent FEC fine, for which the party still owes more than $100,000. All told, the additional recount costs could put the party’s debt closer to the $1 million mark.
“If the documents are valid,” said Brodkorb, “and all indications are that they are… the magnitude and the scope… of the debt has grown at an incredibly exponential rate, an incredibly exponential rate. But I have hope and faith, even in light of this new information that has come out, that our party will recover and that we’ll be in a strong position.”
“But clearly this was information that was not communicated.”
The party is also still recovering from a tumultuous weekend in which Sutton abruptly resigned from his post Friday evening. Delegates also elected a new deputy chair – Kelly Fenton – at the state central committee meeting the following day and opted in a near-unanimous voice vote to table the budget proposal. An internal financial review of the party’s debts – led by executive committee member Jeff Johnson – is being undertaken.
Trimble said that about half of the recount costs are owed to Trimble’s firm, Trimble and Associates, while the remainder is due to attorney and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and to Washington, D.C. lawyer Michael Toner, who also worked on the GOP recount legal team.
When reached by phone, Magnuson said all questions regarding the unpaid legal fees must go through his client, whom he identified as the Republican Party of Minnesota.