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Janell Cole column: Ya gotta love that big money

The party line from North Dakota Republicans has it that they're not envious of Democrats' ability to attract big out-of-state donations. Even when it amounts to something like $170,000 from one donor over four years, which is what the No...

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The party line from North Dakota Republicans has it that they're not envious of Democrats' ability to attract big out-of-state donations. Even when it amounts to something like $170,000 from one donor over four years, which is what the North Dakota Democrats took in from Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Republicans say they're proud that individual donors to their party are, with few exceptions, in-state residents who part with a few hundred dollars each each year.

Bucking the line is the outspoken former state party chairman, Curly Haugland of Bismarck. "I wish we could tap into some of that," he said last week following The Forum's report on the Democrats' big donors.

Uh, Curly, we thought the party didn't want to.

"Why wouldn't you want to?" he asks.

Current party chairman Dan Traynor's response is that the party neither discourages nor pursues large out-of-state donations.

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Meanwhile, Democrats decided to do something about the poor image created by their donor reports. They changed their reporting methods.

Because of Democrats' peculiar interpretation of state disclosure laws and federal election laws, the party for the past several years had reported most donations from in-state Democrats only on the federal forms, and reporting most out-of-state donations to the state. The Republican Party, meanwhile, was filing nearly identical disclosure reports to both state and federal authorities.

Because files at the North Dakota secretary of state are so much more accessible than federal reports, people who researched Democrats' donations found reports dominated by large out-of-state donations. Democrats started to catch flak for it after they loudly criticized Gov. John Hoeven for having a political fund-raiser on a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad dining car. It made the Democrats an obvious target for bad publicity about their own donors.

The Republican Party also said Democrats' reporting method didn't follow state requirements; their reports were, in a word, illegal.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger agreed. Nothing in state law tells the parties to report some donations to the state and some to the Federal Elections Commission, he said. The Democrats' executive director, Vern Thompson, said the party had been following advice given several years before by the secretary of state but Jaeger denies it and says he has the written correspondence to prove his office never advised it.

While Thompson sticks to his claim that Jaeger's office recommended segregated reports, he also re-examined what the party was filing. Yes, he concluded, a state report that includes dozens or hundreds additional small, in-state donors would do much to tone down the impression that the state party is bought and paid for by big out-of-state money. So he filed an amended report for 2001 with Jaeger's office, showing all the donors. But amended reports for previous years haven't been turned in.

Asked if the Republicans may just be envious of large donations, Thompson said, "I think Republicans would like to have attention on campaign contribution issues rather than the issues that reflect on people every day."

Cole is The Forum's Capitol correspondent in Bismarck. She can be reached at forumcap@btinet.net

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