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Email controversy in northern Minnesota congressional race heading to court

Pete Stauber

DULUTH, Minn. -- A lawsuit to decide whether or not to open Pete Stauber campaign emails to the public will be heard at 10:30 a.m. Friday, Oct. 26, in District Court in Duluth.

Judge Stoney Hiljus, of the 10th District Court in Kanabec County, will preside over arguments and deliver a decision on the transparency of 15 emails worth of correspondence between Stauber and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party sued St. Louis County earlier this week in an effort to be granted access to the emails.

“Transparency and accountability are non-negotiable when it comes to restoring faith in our elected officials,” said DFL Chair Ken Martin in a news release. “If there’s nothing to hide, Pete should stop his obstruction and show us.”

Attorneys with Fredrikson and Byron of Minneapolis will argue the case for the DFL, while St. Louis County is being represented by Assistant County Attorney Nick Campanario.

Stauber, a county commissioner and retired Duluth police officer, is the Republican candidate in a hotly contested 8th Congressional District race in northern Minnesota against Democrat Joe Radinovich and Independence Party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman.

The emails were first reported in September following a public records request of Stauber’s county email account by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. County policy prohibits elected officials from using county resources on their campaigns.

The county, Stauber and the NRCC have refused to release the contents of the emails. The county argues the emails are private correspondence between a commissioner and an individual. But precedent in data practices has found that a person working for an organization was serving as an agent, and not an individual.

The Radinovich camp has made repeated calls for the release the emails. Calls for the emails have come, too, from two of Stauber’s fellow commissioners, Tom Rukavina and Frank Jewell, other lawmakers and, on Thursday, the Minnesota Society for Professional Journalists.

“St. Louis County is engaging in an egregious violation of the Data Practices Act and (the Society for Professional Journalists) calls on it to immediately reverse its decision,” said President Joe Spear in a news release.

On Tuesday, Iron Range state lawmaker Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, criticized the county for going to court instead of releasing the emails.

“St. Louis County taxpayers will now have to foot the bill defending lawsuits,” Metsa said, as he called on Stauber to spare taxpayers and release the contents of his emails.

St. Louis County would not comment on the court case earlier this week, saying through a spokesperson, “Our response will be shared through the courts.”

The pursuit of Stauber’s emails has been a backdrop throughout the general election campaign in the 8th District.

Stauber has addressed the emails sparingly, mostly on stage during debates to say the county has cleared him of wrongdoing and to call the pursuit of his emails “an opportunity to smear me.”

Campanario submitted a six-page interpretation of the matter to the state earlier this month, when it argued for the Minnesota Department of Administration to uphold St. Louis County’s decision to keep the emails private.

“Emails between Commissioner Stauber and individuals (natural persons) are not public under the clear and unambiguous language (of the law),” Campanario wrote, “even if the individuals were not acting as private citizens.”

The Office of Administration disagreed in its advisory opinion, which said the emails were public and St. Louis County acted improperly by not releasing the contents for what — at this point in the high-profile campaign — have been numerous public records requests to see the emails.

Attorneys on both sides agreed to have the lawsuit, filed on Tuesday, expedited given that the election is Nov. 6.