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Published December 16, 2011, 12:31 PM

Contender for Minnesota GOP boss arrested over car tax

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota business executive vying to be the state Republican Party chairman said Friday he is reassessing his bid for the post after an arrest on a charge of evading motor vehicle registration taxes.

By: BRIAN BAKST, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota business executive vying to be the state Republican Party chairman said Friday he is reassessing his bid for the post after an arrest on a charge of evading motor vehicle registration taxes.

Brandon Sawalich said that he doesn't want Thursday's arrest at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to become a distraction for the party, which has endured a stretch of bad news lately.

"Stuff like this is just a distraction for everybody," he told The Associated Press by phone. "I don't want to say yes or no. I'm re-thinking it."

Sawalich, 36, was detained Thursday afternoon by airport police officers who noticed his expired registration on a truck registered to him. An assistant had driven it to the airport to pick Sawalich up from a trip, and the businessman was arrested as he left baggage claim. Sawalich said he uses the Ford F-150 in the winter and hadn't realized his tags were out of date.

He said he was surprised when he was taken into custody, fingerprinted and photographed instead of having the matter resolved through a citation. "There was no altercation. They were courteous and respectful. I was too," he said.

He was released on his own recognizance and said his wife moved quickly to update the truck registration, which had expired at the end of June. He was initially charged with "intent to escape motor vehicle taxes," a gross misdemeanor. By Friday, a spokesman for airport police said it would be downgraded to a petty misdemeanor because authorities now regard the overdue registration as "a simple oversight."

The only other offense on Sawalich's record is a 2005 petty misdemeanor for speeding, which carried a $125 fine.

Sawalich has been a favorite to replace Tony Sutton, who resigned his GOP post abruptly this month. Another candidate, former state Rep. Mike Osskopp, entered the race Thursday night. The party will choose its new chairman on Dec. 31.

Sawalich, an executive at hearing aid company Starkey Hearing Technologies, had amassed considerable support since announcing his campaign for chairman on Monday. House Speaker Kurt Zellers and other party luminaries have publicly backed him.

The Minnesota GOP has had a rough few months. At party headquarters, the chairman, deputy chairman and executive director all left in rapid succession. The GOP faces debts of more than $500,000 from past elections and even more from an unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial recount.

Also Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch said she would step down from her post and forgo re-election. She cited burnout from a difficult session.

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