MANKATO — KTOE DJ Al Travis Thielfoldt and Congressman Jim Hagedorn face further questions about the nature of their working relationship as documents raise questions over whether Hagedorn’s campaign paid Thielfoldt for radio interviews, which experts say could trigger a Federal Communications Commission inquiry.
The Free Press recently obtained a series of invoices written by Thielfoldt in his work as a paid advertising consultant to the campaign covering September 2019 and the first five months of 2020. In those monthly invoices, Thielfoldt lists dates of interviews he or others conducted with Hagedorn on KTOE, as well as interview blocks of time.
Those interviews featured Hagedorn talking with Thielfoldt on a variety of issues, from football to the weather to COVID-19, rather than a straight news segment. Thielfoldt, an afternoon talk-show host on KTOE, lists 10 interviews with Hagedorn from Jan. 6 to May 18 in the 2020 invoices reviewed by The Free Press.
Thielfoldt said Friday the invoices reflect work he did as well as times he knew Hagedorn was on KTOE. He was paid a flat fee of $3,500 per month for “social media services.” He said his invoices also reflected times he met with the candidate either in person or by phone.
“The (invoices) are, what do I know happened in the district this month,” Thielfoldt said. “Everything I did, that I knew about happened, happened. I couldn’t put he was not on the radio; he was. I knew he was. So I would say, here’s something else, how many Google searches for him.”
Thielfoldt, however, didn’t list all times Hagedorn was on KTOE. He did not include three radio town halls Hagedorn held on KTOE and other radio stations owned by Radio Mankato. Thielfoldt helped organize those radio town halls on behalf of Hagedorn’s office, according to receipts publicly filed by KTOE.
It also doesn’t include Hagedorn mentions in newspaper articles or TV segments, though Thielfoldt said he listed any other mentions he found under a monthly list of Google searches. He said he would forward those articles or segments to the campaign separately.
Media experts say the fact Thielfoldt listed Hagedorn’s appearances on KTOE as radio interviews in his invoices raises the possibility he may have violated FCC regulations, given that he never disclosed his relationship with Hagedorn on the air during interviews.
“If this information were brought to the attention to the FCC enforcement bureau on its face, I think it would almost certainly trigger an inquiry,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a Georgetown University law professor and a lecturer with the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society.
Thielfoldt said he has always followed FCC guidelines and has never accepted payment for radio interview time on the air.
“It’s just my report,” he said. “It isn’t any more nefarious than that.”
A Hagedorn campaign spokesperson said Monday the campaign has never paid Thielfoldt for radio interview time.
Thielfoldt has been paid $872,930 by Hagedorn’s campaign since 2017. He was taken off the air last month after his work for Hagedorn’s campaign came to light. Radio Mankato co-owner Matt Ketelsen told listeners on Sept. 30 the station wants to avoid any perception of bias during the election season.
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Yet Thielfoldt’s invoices could trigger an inquiry into not only his work, but KTOE’s business practices.
By only including radio interview times in his invoices, Thielfoldt could open himself up to charges of payola or plugola, where a DJ is paid to promote work either from an advertiser or from a venture in which they have a direct stake, according to Chris Terry, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and expert on FCC rules.
The FCC’s payola regulations stem from the 1950s after federal officials cracked down on radio station hosts who were bribed by record companies to play certain songs on air.
Because Thielfoldt’s invoices don’t directly show a tie between the interviews he listed and his payment, Terry said it’s difficult to prove he committed payola.
“There is clearly an ethical issue,” Terry said. “But the status of the rules as it is right now is that you can pretty much get away with anything as long as it’s in the context of news.”
Schwartzman points out Thielfoldt could still face penalties under the Communications Act for an indirect payment. Since Thielfoldt included interview times in his invoices, FCC regulators could argue he still ran afoul of federal rules if they find more information that doesn’t match his explanation.
KTOE could also face fines for potential FCC violations. Experts say KTOE should have filed more records over the issue with the FCC, including a legal letter acknowledging Thielfoldt’s work with Hagedorn. The radio station’s political public filings include Hagedorn ad contracts, as well as three radio town halls in April and May paid for through Hagedorn’s congressional office, that were organized by Thielfoldt.
Ketelsen said last week the station had yet to file a letter about Thielfoldt but Radio Mankato is working with lawyers to ensure they were meeting all FCC requirements.
“We’re extremely confident that we haven’t done anything wrong,” Ketelsen said.
He said Radio Mankato knew of Thielfoldt’s working relationship with the Hagedorn campaign when Thielfoldt was hired in June 2019. Thielfoldt said he expects to go back on KTOE airwaves after the election.
Ketelsen declined to comment on what steps the station is taking to check its compliance with FCC regulations or whether the station has been contacted by FCC officials. Yet he stressed KTOE’s commitment to remaining politically neutral in the community as an unbiased source of information. He also dismissed potential payola or plugola concerns stemming from Thielfoldt’s work with the Hagedorn campaign.
“If we even suspected any payola or plugola, we would have dealt with it immediately,” Ketelsen said.
Experts say the FCC has beefed up its public filing requirements in recent years. Even if FCC officials don’t pursue an investigation into Thielfoldt and KTOE, the station could face questions when its broadcast license is up for renewal in April 2021.
Some experts say the station may be safe from inquiry, however. Sue Wilson, a former California journalist turned broadcast media watchdog, said the FCC has grown lax in its enforcement efforts in recent years.
Still, she said, Thielfoldt’s work as both radio host and political ad consultant warrants further scrutiny.
“If there isn’t a rule against this, there should be,” Wilson said.
Thielfoldt’s work with the Hagedorn campaign marks the latest in a series of ethics-related troubles for the 1st District representative. His congressional office was found earlier this year to have paid companies tied to his staffers or their relatives for bulk-mail correspondence, which experts say may have violated House ethics rules.
Hagedorn said he fired his chief of staff as soon as he learned of the situation, and an internal investigation revealed he took appropriate action, though political watchdogs say he likely will face an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.
Hagedorn may have to answer to federal campaign officials if, as alleged, his campaign has used office space inside the basement of the Brett’s Building in downtown Mankato, the same location as his district office, for several years rent-free without disclosing it to the FCC. While political candidates can receive office space as in-kind donations, they are required by law to report it.
Hagedorn’s congressional office pays Brett’s Building owner Gordon Awsumb $2,200 a month for his district office, but his campaign lists no rent as part of its monthly bills. The campaign does pay a monthly $60 internet bill, as well as other utilities.
Awsumb said earlier this month he has never rented space to Hagedorn’s campaign.
An investigation published in Politico on Friday revealed Hagedorn has used an address inside the Brett’s Building for his congressional campaigns since 2013. There are also pictures taken in 2018 of Hagedorn and staff inside the basement space.
Hagedorn’s campaign said in a statement Friday it had rented a postal office box from the Brett’s Building in the past.
Awsumb has contributed to Hagedorn’s campaign several times over the past few years and has given almost $1,000 to the Republican’s re-election efforts in 2020.
Hagedorn, of Blue Earth, is a first-term representative in Congress. He is running against Democrat Dan Feehan, of North Mankato, in a rematch of the 2018 election.