Here is one informed person's view of Rep. Jim Hagedorn's use of his office's budget allowance: It violated House rules, but the penalty the congressman might face will be determined by his degree of culpability. Did he know that the heavy spending on constituent mail was going to a vendor owned by a member of his staff?
"There clearly was a violation," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist on government ethics issues with Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. Holman is considered an expert on ethics, lobbying and campaign finance issues.
"If Hagedorn was culpable, the consequences are going to be more severe," he said.
Hagedorn, a first-term GOP congressman representing southern Minnesota, has denied knowledge of his office's self-dealing. He said recently that he was involved with overseeing the content of the mailers and letters sent out to 1st District constituents, but that he played no role in selecting vendors or approving contracts. That responsibility was delegated to his one-time chief of staff Peter Su, whom Hagedorn fired after he became aware of the problem in mid-June.
On Wednesday, Holman was one of the featured speakers at a tele-press conference hosted by Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. Also present was Adam Bozzi, vice president for communications for End Citizens United, an organization that seeks reform of the campaign finance system in the U.S.
Hagedorn's office has been tangled in an ethics thicket since it was reported over the weekend that 40% of his office's taxpayer-funded budget — the highest level in Congress — was spent in the first three months of the year. Half of that amount was spent on franked mail to constituents in the 1st District.
An estimated $60,000, for printing, went to a Texas-based business owned by a part-time member of Hagedorn's staff.
A Star Tribune report on Tuesday uncovered anonymous emails from a former staffer in Hagedorn's office that show that Hagedorn was involved in making decisions related to taxpayer-funded constituent mail, or "franked mail," and that Hagedorn's office anticipated media inquiries about the large volume of constituent mail coming from his office.
"By the way, if we get any questions on Franked mail, the answer is: 'Every mass mailer from Hagedorn's office has been approved by the bipartisan, Democrat-led Franking Commission,' " the congressman's press secretary wrote. 'As a freshman member, Rep. Hagedorn feels it is extremely important to keep his constituents informed about the work he is doing in Congress.' "
In Wednesday's tele-press conference, Holman said that if an inquiry shows that Hagedorn was unaware of the violations, he will likely receive a letter of reprimand from the House Ethics Committee and be required to pay back the federal treasury for any of the expenditures in violation of House rules.
But if it's determined that Hagedorn was aware of the violations, the matter could be turned over to the full House for either a reprimand or censure by the entire body.
"The House Ethics Committee is not a stellar agency when it comes to enforcing ethics rules," Holman said. "But this is one type of violation that they do take seriously, and that's the misuse of tax dollars."
Not only did Hagedorn's office spend $60,000 with his staffer's firm, Invocq Technologies, it spent another $340,000, going back to last year, with Abernathy West LLC, a Delaware-based vendor. That company, formed within the last year, has an ownership that has not yet been determined.
"Both of these companies, Abernathy West and Invocq Technologies, have no known history of doing the types of work that Hagedorn's office contracted them to do," said Martin, the DFL chairman. "He needs to come clean about Abernathy West and why he hired them. It's only fair for Minnesotans to assume the worst until he helps to clear it up."
A Post Bulletin email seeking a response from Hagedorn's office was not returned.
Last week, it was reported that Hagedorn had hired Elliot Berke, a prominent ethics attorney who previously represented disgraced former congressmen Duncan Hunter and Aaron Schock. Hunter is currently serving an 11-month prison term for misusing campaign funds. Schock resigned in 2015 amid a scandal involving misuse of campaign and public funds.
Hagedorn's "irregular spending" problems come a little more than two months before the November election. He's running against DFL challenger Dan Feehan, whom Hagedorn beat by less than 1 percentage point in 2018.
Martin was asked why the DFL party had not filed a House ethics complaint that would trigger an investigation. Martin said that he doesn't believe an ethics complaint is necessary to move an inquiry forward, given the media attention and prominence of the story. But he said DFL leaders were exploring options and discussing them with Minnesota's DFL congressional delegation.
"It's not a question of if we file. It's a question of how to do it in the most effective way to make sure that this investigation does indeed happen," he said.
Holman said the House Ethics Committee generally shies away from pursuing public inquiries of its members in the middle of elections.
"They will not be public about it as they go into the election cycle. It would be following the election that they would take this up publicly," Holman said. "They don't want to meddle with elections."