WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s opponent accused him of corruption on Sunday night — citing information first revealed in a Minnesota Reformer investigation — in the first televised debate in the hotly contested race to represent Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District.
Dan Feehan, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nominee, said in his opening statement that “personal corruption” is the most important issue in the race. He said that Hagedorn’s congressional office sent hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to an employee and a family member of an employee, and that Hagedorn hasn’t taken responsibility.
“His office funneled nearly a half million of your taxpayer dollars to members of his staff or their family members,” Feehan said. “Folks, when I was in the Army, I learned a real important leadership principle: When in charge, be in charge.”
Feehan was referring to Reformer reporting showing that Hagedorn’s office gave more than $110,000 to a company called Invocq Technologies, which is owned by his staff member, John Sample, in what ethics experts consider to be a violation of House rules.
His office also spent some $340,000 on a company called Abernathy West, which was later revealed to be owned by his former chief of staff’s brother.
The payments were for the companies to produce positive mailers that Hagedorn could send to his constituents, and the contracts were found to be well above market rate. In some cases, the companies also overcharged the office, according to an internal investigation of the matter, a summary of which was released by the Hagedorn office earlier this month.
Though Hagedorn initially declined to answer to the charges during the debate, he then charged Feehan with corruption, though he didn’t explain his allegation. Feehan responded by calling Hagedorn “desperate.”
Though moderators didn’t bring up the questionable spending, Feehan forced the issue late in the debate.
“What it shows is you don’t care about what’s going on with lives here,” Feehan said. “Think about what nearly a half million dollars would be for transportation, health care, what it would mean to the communities here. But it’s that type of corruption that people hate about politics, and frankly the idea that you think it’s no big deal, shows more about you than anything.”
Hagedorn defended his own actions surrounding the revelations of the questionable spending in his office, noting that he fired his former chief of staff, Peter Su, and reported the information to House investigatory committees. Hagedorn was referring to an internal review of the matter, conducted by a D.C. ethics lawyer Hagedorn hired, and which explained that Hagedorn was not aware who owned the companies at the time the payments were made.
“I’ve acted honorably the entire time. When I saw that things weren’t going right in my office. I took immediate action,” Hagedorn said. “I went and I changed my personnel and I also self reported it to the House. I did every last thing I could to let them know what was going on.”
(In fact, although Hagedorn fired Su, Invocq co-owner John Sample has remained on Hagedorn’s staff, collecting nearly $50,000 per year.)
Then, Hagedorn struck back at Feehan with his own allegations of corruption. Hagedorn said Feehan was “paid to run for Congress, a half a million dollars by Democrat groups,” without explaining the allegations, but promising to release information after the debate.
“I’m very interested to see how you’re going to explain that you did a half a million dollars worth of work in two years,” Hagedorn said. “Because if you didn’t. Those are felonies.”
Feehan responded to the allegations by saying he was dumbfounded, and painted it as a last ditch attempt by Hagedorn to turn the debate around.
“So, we see a pretty desperate man in a desperate situation literally making things up,” Feehan said. “Things that are so untrue and so unfounded that they’re damaging to the integrity of this election.”
Feehan took umbrage at Hagedorn’s allegation: “How dare you attack my integrity? Integrity is central to every single member of Congress, and you have shown absolutely none,” Feehan continued. “Are we going to get our money back? For example, will we actually have an independent investigation to see where this money went? Again, a half million dollars of your taxpayer dollars and mine.”
Hagedorn then pressed Feehan, asking him whether he had been paid by an organization called LEE.
“Every single word that you have uttered tonight is untrue,” Feehan responded.
After the debate, Hagedorn’s campaign spokeswoman sent an email clarifying the payments in question. Hagedorn was referring to payments Feehan received from 2017 through 2019 from a host of groups. A spreadsheet shared by the campaign, along with publicly available financial disclosure statements, noted Feehan had drawn a salary from a group called Leadership for Educational Equity, a D.C.-based nonprofit that tries to end educational inequity; the New Politics Leadership Academy, a group that recruits military veterans into public service; and the Center for New American Security, a national security think tank. Feehan has been a fellow for the latter two groups, according to their websites.
When asked to clarify why Hagedorn believes these payments were improper, the spokeswoman did not respond.