Where do they live? Rep. John Thompson case shows how easy it is for lawmakers to keep address private

By: - July 16, 2021 2:21 pm

State Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, speaks during a Capitol press conference on June 28, 2021. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

The controversy swirling around Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, over his July Fourth traffic stop has helped expose a loophole in state law that could allow candidates to evade notice if they don’t live in the district in which they’re running.

All candidates have to do is check a box on a form to avoid putting an address down. Thirteen legislators did so last year.

But the Secretary of State relies on the honor system: Nobody checks to make sure candidates actually live in the district they are running to represent. And Thompson’s case illustrates how difficult it can be to determine whether candidates are legitimately keeping their addresses private or not.

When Thompson was pulled over by a St. Paul police officer, he mentioned he was a state representative while handing the cop a Wisconsin license.

“You have a Wisconsin license?” the officer asked.

Thompson alleged he was racially profiled days later at a memorial service for Philando Castile, his friend who was killed by St. Anthony police during a 2016 traffic stop.

Soon Thompson’s claim hit the news, and his opponents pounced. He’s had few friends in the police community since his anti-police diatribe in Hugo last fall, and a police group called on the Wisconsin attorney general to investigate whether Thompson committed perjury when he renewed his Wisconsin driver’s license in November 2020.

Former Secretary of State, now-state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R- Big Lake, called on current Secretary of State Steve Simon to explain whether Thompson’s residency was verified when he filed for candidacy last spring.

Simon explained in a letter to Kiffmeyer that state law allows candidates to keep their addresses confidential and limits his office’s authority to verify that candidates live in the district in which they’re running. But the candidates must sign an affidavit — a sworn statement under penalty of perjury — verifying the address. Signing a false affidavit would be a crime, investigated by law enforcement, not Simon’s office. Lying on a Wisconsin driver’s license application is also considered perjury.

“The law does not provide our office investigative or law enforcement powers of the kind that your letter suggests,” Simon wrote to Kiffmeyer. “We don’t have guns or badges.”

In Thompson’s case, a St. Paul address in his House District 67A was written on his affidavit, and then crossed out and a box checked asking that it be kept private. The form says by checking the box, he was certifying that a “police report has been submitted or I have an order for protection for my or my family’s safety.” Their address can also be kept confidential if they’re part of the state Safe at Home program, a statewide address confidentiality program for people who fear for their safety due to things like domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault. The candidate then provides the address on a separate form that is kept confidential by the secretary of state.

Candidates don’t have to do anything to prove they meet those requirements. And it usually only becomes an issue in cases like Thompson’s, when something happens to rain down scrutiny.

It’s not clear where Thompson lives — numerous St. Paul addresses come up in public documents and police reports, and although the address he gave the secretary of state is in his district, he has declined to disclose it.

His spokesman, Jamar Nelson, said Thompson lives in the district, but does not want his address released because he and his family have gotten numerous death threats. He said Thompson didn’t think he had to get a new driver’s license, since he had a Wisconsin license.

​​“It was an honest mistake that he didn’t think twice about,” Nelson said.

It’s also not clear whether Thompson qualified to check that box on the Minnesota affidavit due to security concerns. The State Court Administrator’s Office said it has no record of protection orders for Thompson in Minnesota.

He signed the affidavit on May 19, 2020 — before the Hugo incident after which he has said he and his family received death threats, but Nelson said he got death threats before that, but didn’t file police reports on them. Thompson has said he’s lived in St. Paul for 18 years, so the Reformer asked the St. Paul Police Department whether there were any police reports showing threats to Thompson.

Spokesman Steve Linders unearthed one report from September 2017, when Thompson called the police after getting into an altercation after another driver cut him off. Thompson told police the man threatened to kill him while wielding a hammer, according to the police report.

Officers were unable to find the suspect, and a month later, a police investigator filed a report saying he was unable to reach Thompson, and without his cooperation, was unable to proceed with the investigation.

Does that meet the requirements in the law? Secretary of State spokesman Peter Bartz-Gallagher said it would be up to a court to determine whether that report complies with the provision, and his office isn’t aware of any past court rulings related to this.

Last year a Reformer report about a Republican senator raised questions about whether candidates are checking the box just to keep their address confidential.

Sen. Julie Rosen checked the same box on her candidacy affidavit, raising questions about whether she lived in a 684-square-foot rental home in Vernon Center, or a $1.3 million, 5,784-square-foot Mendota home she built in 2011 after getting divorced the previous year. She first listed the Vernon Center address when she ran in 2016, is registered to vote there and has a post office box in the town.

When asked last year why she kept her address confidential, Rosen said the county clerk didn’t have a problem with it, and declined to comment beyond that.

Kiffmeyer said Tuesday the Legislature should act swiftly to close any loopholes in the law.

“If there is a change needed in the law to fix this, the Legislature should act swiftly to make sure voters can be confident that all candidates facing election are meeting the requirements necessary to serve in that role,” she said in a press release. “Elected officials are held to a higher standard to maintain the trust of the public, and we need to be sure there is absolutely no favoritism or exceptions being provided for DFL legislators by a DFL secretary of state.”

When asked whether Kiffmeyer raised similar concerns about Rosen’s residency last year, a spokeswoman said she didn’t “because the reason for the inquiry to the Secretary of State was that Rep. Thompson put his own residency in question by using an out-of-state driver’s license during a traffic stop.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.