Herald JournalHerald Journal, March 24, 2003

District court to determine if Rep. Borrell keeps his seat

By Lynda Jensen

A grand jury will assemble Tuesday afternoon March 25 in Buffalo to determine if Rep. Dick Borrell keeps his political seat.

Borrell is charged with unfair campaign practices, which could result in his removal from office of state representative District 19B, if he is found guilty of the offense.

Borrell won a tight three-way race among DFLer Lori Schmidt, and Republican write-in rival Darren Knight.

This kind of case would be the first one in recent history for Wright County, commented Brian Asleson of the Wright County Attorney's Office.

Asleson has been around for 20 years and doesn't remember a seated official going through this process, although there have been others who lost elections being indicted with something, he said.

Unfair campaign practices is a gross misdemeanor, which carries a $1,000 fine, and or one year in jail, or both, he said.

If found guilty, the judge shall require the forfeiture of office, but there are two loopholes in this section that may allow Borrell to keep his office, even if he is found guilty, Asleson said.

If the judge determines that the offense was trivial, or there was an "accidental miscalculation," on Borrell's part, the judge may allow Borrell to keep his seat, Asleson said.

"It leaves a lot of discretion," Asleson said.

How it came about

The case stems from pamphlets and statements allegedly distributed by Borrell supporters five days before the election, claiming that Knight was charged with unfair campaign practices and criminal defamation by Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly, neither of which was true.

In fact, Kelly will be a witness in this case, and as a result the prosecutor is Meeker County attorney Michael Thompson, since it would be a conflict of interest for Kelly.

"The pamphlet went on to state 'the Wright County Attorney's Office immediately assigned an investigator due to the serious nature of this criminal complaint,'" Kelly said.

This is not true, although the county attorney is obligated to check out every complaint, no matter how frivolous or legitimate it seems, Kelly said.

The county attorney did process Borrell's two complaints Oct. 28, but did not find substance to them, Kelly said.

"(We) found that there was no probable cause to substantiate either of Borrell's claims," Kelly said.

Both men, Borrell and Knight, were informed of this decision Oct. 31 ­ two days before the campaign supporters started distributing the misleading information Nov. 1 about Knight being charged.

During this time, the county attorney's office fielded calls for five days, answering questions from voters and newspapers about the pamphlet and Knight, Kelly said.

Callers "wanted to know before they voted if Darren Knight was a criminal and if Darren Knight had been criminally charged by the county attorney," Kelly said. "The answer is no and no."

"The way the pamphlet looked and the way it was worded was misleading because it gave the impression that:

1) It was the county attorney who launched, started and initiated a criminal investigation against Darren Knight (not true).

2) It was the county attorney who filed criminal charges against Knight (not true).

Mr. Borrell may file a complaint with the county attorney, but he does not have the authority to file criminal charges. Whether criminal charges would be filed is the responsibility of the county attorney or grand jury.

3) The county attorney validated all of the above by immediately assigning an investigator due to the "serious nature" of this criminal complaint (not true).

The county attorney never made this statement," Kelly said.

Moreover, the law requires the county attorney to investigate all complaints of unfair campaign practices and this is why an investigator was assigned."

Knight filed a complaint the day before the election.

"(I) believed it was only fair to Darren Knight to clear his name and set the record straight," Kelly said.

Kelly does not personally know either candidate, and did not have contact with either before the election season this year, he said.

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