Judge dismisses complaint from Howk

NEW ULM – A state administrative law judge has dismissed a complaint that District 88 Superintendent Jeff Bertrang and Journal Editor Kevin Sweeney had bribed voters in the recent District 88 School Building Referendum election.

Ricky Lee Howk of New Ulm had filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings on Aug. 11, the day before the election, complaining that an offer from an anonymous donor, who pledged a million dollar gift to the district for use in a fine arts auditorium if the referendum passed, constituted a bribe that encouraged voters to approve the referendum. The Journal had reported the offer in an article written by Sweeney, who had also written an editorial encouraging voters to support the referendum.

The referendum passed on Aug. 12 by a 52-vote margin (2,642 for and 2.590 against).

Administrative Law Judge Laura Sue Schlatter, in an order dated Aug. 14, ruled that Howk had failed to show there were violations of the statute.

Howk’s complaint said the promise to donate money to the district was a promise to give something of monetary value to all the voters of the district. However, the complaint was not filed against the couple who offered the donation, but against the district and the newspaper.

“The mere fact that The Journal reported on the anonymous couple’s offer and published an editorial in support of the referendum is insufficient to support a prima facie violation,” the order said. “Likewise, the fact that the School District would benefit from such an offer does not support finding a prima facie violation of the statue,” Judge Schlatter wrote.

Without such evidence, the complaint was dismissed in its entirety.

Howk had voiced his opposition to the school’s building plans on Facebook sites and had written a letter to the editor of the Mankato Free Press accusing the district of bribing voters.

“I didn’t know there was a complaint until I got the notice over the weekend that it had been dismissed,” said Sweeney. “I’m glad Judge Schlatter dismissed it, and I hope the state didn’t have to expend too much time and money considering the merits of Mr. Howk’s complaint.”

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