Rep. Jim Hagedorn has hired an ethics lawyer with a reputation for representing lawmakers ensnared in ethical and legal troubles arising from allegations of spending rules violations.
The move comes amid allegations that the first-term Republican congressman paid $100,000 to a company owned by a member of his own staff and mismanaged taxpayer money.
The attorney hired by Hagedorn is Elliot Berke, a well-known ethics lawyer who previously represented GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and GOP Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois. Both faced legal and campaign finance cases arising from allegations they violated spending rules.
Hunter is currently serving an 11-month prison term for misusing campaign funds. Schock resigned from Congress in 2015 amid a scandal involving misuse of public and campaign funds. Berke also represented GOP Rep. Cathy Rodgers, who was sanctioned by the House Ethics Committee last year for an improper use of campaign funds.
The hiring of Berke was first reported by the Minnesota Reformer, a nonprofit, independent news organization that first broke the story about the irregular spending coming from Hagedorn's office.
Berke's hiring is a strong sign that Hagedorn is gearing up for an investigation by the House Ethics Committee, experts say. Hagedorn has said he was unaware of the spending and fired his chief of staff, Peter Su, two months ago over the "irregular spending." But experts say that members of Congress are ultimately responsible for spending decisions by their staff members.
Hagedorn's office allegedly directed at least $100,000 of taxpayer money to a Texas-based printing company owned by John Sample, a Hagedorn staff member. Hagedorn also paid $340,000 for printing services to Abernathy West, a company which was formed one year ago and whose origins and ownership have been difficult to ascertain.
Hagedorn has not responded to an email seeking comment.
Experts say it is unlikely the public will know until after the election whether Hagedorn is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. Any announcement would be delayed so as not to affect the outcome of the race.
Hagedorn said he has hired an attorney to conduct an internal review of the spending.. He has said he will share the findings of the review, but the timing of when that will happen is unclear.
DFL state leaders accuse Hagedorn of keeping the "corrupt and unethical dealings in his office" under wraps for months until press inquiries forced him to acknowledge them.. DFL Party chairman Ken Martin said "to make matters worse," Hagedorn is still employing Sample, whose company was paid the $100,000.
"It's not a surprise that Hagedorn has just hired a D.C. lawyer who specializes in defending criminal politicians like Aaron Schock and Duncan Hunter since Hagedorn spent his first term in Congress handing out our hard-earned tax dollars to his cronies and using those tax dollars to prop up his floundering re-election campaign," Martin said.
Attention has also focused on the large amount of money Hagedorn's office has spent relative to other congressional offices. He reportedly spent half a million dollars in the first three months of this year, accounting for nearly 40 percent of his taxpayer-funded office budget. Of that amount, $280,000 went to printing and sending mail to constituents in the first three months of the year.
Hagedorn in an interview with KTTC-TV, said the amount of money spent by his office in the first three months was always intended. But he declined to say what irregularities he discovered that prompted him to fire Su.
"We have a portion of our budget that goes toward mailings. We were always going to do that," Hagedorn told the news outlet.
The revelations come three months before the November election. and is certain to become a dominant topic of the campaign. His DFL opponent, Dan Feehan, who narrowly lost to Hagedorn in 2018, has accused Hagedorn of being "asleep at the wheel."
The issue is also likely to come up at a Rochester press event Friday expected to be attended by Feehan, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith; state House candidates Randy Brock and Liz Boldon; and state Senate candidate Aleta Borrud. The DFL gathering will take place at 11:15 a.m. at the Gray Duck and at 12:45 p.m. at Channel One food shelf.