TCF Bank is one of the largest corporate contributors to independent expenditure committees in Minnesota this election cycle. The financial institution gave $250,000 to the State Fund for Economic Growth, LLC, which in turn gave money to MN Forward and the Taxpayer’s League of Minnesota, a group engaged in a lawsuit to strike down portions of Minnesota’s campaign finance disclosure laws. The arrangement has largely shielded TCF from scrutiny of the kind Target and Best Buy have received for their political contributions, and while it appears to be legal, watchdog groups wonder if its an effort to avoid transparency.
TCF gave the State Fund for Economic Growth (SFEG) $100,050 on Aug. 2 and another $150,000 on Sept. 19. Combined, the two donations make for one of the largest corporate expenditures this cycle. SFEG then directed $100,000 to MN Forward, a group that backs Republican Tom Emmer for governor, and $50,000 to the Taxpayer’s League.
SFEG registered with the state as an independent expenditure group on Aug. 16, two weeks after receiving TCF’s first contribution. The group, which also uses TCF Bank as its financial institution, is entirely funded by contributions from TCF.
The process of using an LLC as a mechanism to funnel money from a corporation to an independent expenditure committee has been used several times this year by both right- and left-leaning groups. Minnesota’s Future, its LLC and the Republican Governor’s Association came under criticism for using a similar setup, which is currently being investigated by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board after a complaint from Common Cause Minnesota.
That group’s director, Mike Dean, said that while they are similar, TCF and SFEG followed the rules.
“This group is set up in very different ways,” said Dean. Minnesota’s Future LLC didn’t register with the finance board, while SFEG LLC did.
But he said the arrangement raises questions about why SFEG exists. TCF could have simply made its donations directly to MN Forward and the Taxpayer’s League. Dean suspects the added layer of an LLC is to help shield TCF from scrutiny.
“They created this scenario to disguise those contributions, and in that they were largely successful,” he said. He said the fallout from Target’s donations to MN Forward seems to have prompted the need to add the extra layer. In July, news of Target’s donations to the pro-Emmer committee launched protests and boycotts of the retail giant, forcing Target to respond and take a hit to its reputation.
That might be why TCF funneled money to the Taxpayer’s League of Minnesota. That group is pushing a lawsuit to overturn Minnesota’s requirements that corporations disclose their contributions. They lost their first case, but are appealing that decision. If they are successful, no company will face the kind of controversy Target has because the public will never know which corporations gave to independent committees or how much.
“It’s a clear example of how some corporations are reacting to the Target backlash,” said Dean of TCF’s maneuvering.
He noted that when MN Forward’s finance reports were released earlier this month, TCF was not listed among those contributors and the media missed it because it was funneled through the LLC. While 3M and Best Buy took some flak from liberal groups, TCF got a pass.
But because TCF and SFEG followed the rules, following the paper trail eventually reveals the donations. “That’s how we know the donations came from TCF,” said Dean.
Yet the setup between TCF and MN Forward and the Republican Governor’s Association and Minnesota’s Future are very similar, and for good reason: Both have LLCs that were set up by the same attorney, Dean said.