Why did Rep. Jim Hagdorn fire his chief of staff, Peter Su?
A month's worth of controversy surrounding Hagedorn office's "irregular spending" appeared to boil down to that question Wednesday. It was highlighted by an audio recording obtained by the Star Tribune that captures Hagedorn telling Su, "I don't believe there's any problem with that," appearing to give his blessing to the idea of constituent mailers produced by two companies with connections to his congressional office.
Hagedorn also told local television last month that the $280,000 spent on printing and sending mail to constituents -- about 20 percent of his office budget -- during the first three months of the year was part of the plan.
"We have a portion of our budget that goes towards mailings," Hagedorn said. "There was finite number of dollars that was spent on that. We were always going to do that."
Hagedorn says said he acted decisively and fired Su, among other things, once he became aware of "possible excessive mail charges." But was it the exorbitant spending on mailings that got Su axed? The printing contracts that went to companies with ties to Hagedorn's office? Both?
Hagedorn won't say. And comments made by the Republican congressman in the wake of the scandal and recently reported telephone audio recordings make the issue even murkier.
That was the question to which Democrats demanded an explanation, as they called for an outside investigation into Hagedorn's office.
"Congressman Hagedorn has done everything possible to evade responsibility for the ethics scandal in his office," said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. "Hagedorn has lied, thrown staff under the bus and hired a lawyer for crooked politicians to get him out of trouble, but none of that is going to fool the people of Southern Minnesota."
Hagedorn released an internal review over the Labor Day weekend that was conducted by an attorney he hired. In the report, Hagedorn agreed to take responsibility for actions of those in his employ, "even when those actions are taken without his knowledge," said attorney Elliot Berke.
"But upon thoroughly reviewing this matter for more than two months, I can state with certainty that Congressman Hagedorn acted in good faith and did not personally direct, profit or intend for his office to bypass any established office procedures, or potentially or technically violate any rule of the House," Berke said.
Hagedorn has been vague as to why he fired Su. When he was in Rochester two weeks ago, he said he wouldn't answer any questions on the matter until the review's release. He still isn't commenting.
"We won't be commenting on personnel matters beyond stating that Mr. Su ceased being employed by the office," Hagedorn's office stated Wednesday.
Not only was the amount of money spent by his office greater than that of any other member of Congress, the Minnesota Reformer reported last month, the review showed that the printing contracts went to two companies, Abernathy West and Invocq Technologies, both with ties to Hagedorn's office. The former is owned by Su's brother and the latter is owned by John Sample, a part-time staffer in Hagedorn's office.
Directing contracts to people with which a lawmaker or his staff has a legal or professional relationship is a violation of House rules, said Craig Holman, an expert on ethics and campaign finance for for Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.
"This is a violation of House rules, no matter what Hagedorn says," Holman said. "That's why he fired Peter Su, because it became obvious that he had just broken congressional rules, and he was trying to shift the burden on his chief of staff, so that he didn't face too much in terms of consequences."
The review's findings also reported that Abernathy West charged Hagedorn's office significantly more than fair market for its services. Sample apologized for inadvertent charges and agreed to return $16,500, the report says.
Hagedorn is seeking re-election against DFLer Dan Feehan, a reprise of a contest that Hagedorn won by a mere 1,300 votes in 2018.
According to the internal review, Su was fired June 18, the day after Hagedorn became concerned about potential excessive franking charges incurred by his office.
Su recorded his phone call with Hagedorn about six weeks after his firing, the Star Tribune reports. He said the call shows Hagedorn's level of concern as expressed in the internal review was not consistent with how he previously viewed and expressed the matter to others.
In the recording, Hagedorn disputes the idea that there are any ethical issues surrounding giving contracts to companies that have connections to his staff.
"It was presented as if, that John shouldn't have done the work, that your brother shouldn't have been hired, because that was unethical. Which it's not," Hagedorn is recorded as saying.
Berke's review and its findings have been turned over to the House Ethics Committee. The body is unlikely to launch an investigation until after the election and only if Hagedorn is re-elected, experts say.