RoboCop: Is the St. Paul Police Federation breaking the law?

In recent weeks hundreds of St. Paul residents have been receiving phone calls from St. Paul Police Federation president Dave Titus. The calls are targeted at potential voters in the city's three most hotly contested city council races.

However, Titus is not directly making all of these calls himself. Rather it's a machine-dialed, recorded message designed to bolster SPPF-backed candidates Debbie Montgomery, David Haas, and Dan Bostrom. The only problem is that Minnesota state law forbids such automatic messages unless there is a live human placing the call.

"It's clearly illegal," says David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University and an expert on campaign laws, of the phone calls. "You've got to have a live person at some point."

At least one person who received the call, Ward One resident Katherine Blauvelt, says she intends to file a complaint with the Minnesota Attorney General's office.

Titus disputes that the calls are illegal. "What we've been doing I've been advised follows the law," he says. Titus referred specific questions to Michael R. Shannon, of Mandate: Message, Media & Public Relations, the consulting group hired by the SPPF to produce the calls.

Shannon says that because the automatic calls originate from out of state (in this instance Virginia), Minnesota law is not applicable. Instead the calls fall under Federal Communications Commission guidelines, which don't require the presence of a live human being. "People who are telling you that you have to have a live person are ignorant of the law," Shannon says.

But Schultz is not swayed by this line of reasoning. "You can't claim that you're a non-citizen of Minnesota, do business in Minnesota, and say I don't have to follow your laws," he says. "I've not heard anybody else make this argument before."

Regardless of the legality of the automatic phone calls, another intriguing aspect of the SPPF campaign is the source of funding. According to the union's most recent campaign finance filing, almost the entire operation is being bankrolled by Jerry Trooien. The controversial developer made a $30,000 contribution to SPPF in September, then added $20,000 more to the group's coffers earlier this month. The organization's other contributions in the last two months? Just $2,550 from a trio of individuals. To put Trooien's $50,000 donation in perspective, it represents more than 10 percent of the total funds raised by all St. Paul city council candidates this year.

Trooien is seeking to build the $1.5 billion Bridges of St. Paul project on the city's West Side. The proposed development includes 1,150 residential units, 400,000 square feet of retail space, and a Westin Hotel. Last month, however, the city council rejected a rezoning application required for the project by a 5-2 margin. Bostrom and Montgomery provided the two dissenting votes.

***UPDATE*** Michael Shannon doesn't think I gave him a fair shake in yesterday's post. He emails some additional comments:

Schultz ‘may’ be an expert on MN election law, but he’s woefully ill informed regarding the Constitution. When the federal government reserves control of an activity for itself, the states may not make laws that contradict Federal law.

For example, the FAA regulates the airline industry. MN legislators cannot decide unilaterally that all airlines that land in MN will have at least one flight attendant of Scandinavian descent. Federal law takes precedence. The same principle applies with the phone calls. If I’m calling from Saint Paul to Minneapolis it’s intrastate and MN law applies. If I’m calling from VA to MN, federal law applies.

You might ask the esteemed Prof. Schultz if he’s ever encountered the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution.

There’s nothing like ignorance to give conviction to your preconceived notions.

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