Feds investigating Hagedorn appearances on Minnesota talk radio station

U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn attended the Duluth re-election rally for President Donald Trump on Sep. 30, 2020. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

WASHINGTON — Federal investigators are probing a Minnesota news radio station’s financial relationship with Rep. Jim Hagedorn, questioning whether the station broke communications law by allowing a man paid by Hagedorn’s campaign to interview the congressman on air.

The investigation by the Federal Communications Commission began after the Reformer first reported in late September on business dealings between Hagedorn and Al Travis Thielfoldt. The Republican congressman had appeared on a show hosted by Thielfoldt on Mankato, Minn.-based radio station KTOE while the host was also in the Hagedorn campaign’s employ.

Neither revealed during the interviews that Hagedorn had entrusted Thielfoldt with more than $1.4 million between 2014 and 2020 to place digital ads and spots on local news stations, including on KTOE, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Now, the FCC is investigating whether Hagedorn’s campaign paid Thielfoldt or KTOE for the interviews, and whether the station violated communications law by failing to publicly disclose the financial relationship between the two men.

Citing the Reformer’s reporting, FCC official Robert Baker sent a letter on Oct. 2 to a lawyer representing KTOE’s license holder, Subarctic Media. The letter, obtained by the Reformer through a Freedom of Information Act request, includes three pages of questions, including inquiries about whether Subarctic Media representatives were aware of Thielfoldt’s company, Innovative Marketing Techniques, and the business it had done with Hagedorn.

Al Travis Thielfoldt gets paid by politicians like GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn to place ads on radio stations like the one he works for as a radio host. Photo courtesy of KTOE.

The letter asked whether Hagedorn’s appearance on the station “related in any manner…to the payment or promise of payment of any money or other consideration by or on behalf of Rep. Jim Hagedorn to Innovative Marketing Techniques and/or Al Travis Thielfoldt and/or the station.”

When reached by phone on Wednesday, John Neely, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney representing Subarctic Media in the matter, declined to comment. KTOE general manager Matt Ketelsen also declined to comment when reached by phone.

Thielfoldt did not respond to a voicemail message seeking comment, and Hagedorn’s campaign spokeswoman did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

The FCC also asked the station licensee to provide all documentation related to Hagedorn’s appearances on the air and specifics about any potential payments from the Hagedorn campaign, including the amounts, dates and purposes.

The letter also informs Subarctic Media that the agency is looking into whether KTOE violated the law by failing to give Hagedorn’s opponent for the U.S. House seat in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District equal time on the air. Hagedorn defeated DFL candidate Dan Feehan in both 2018 and again in 2020. 

The Reformer requested a response to the inquiry letter from the FCC but was denied. A legal adviser to the FCC replied on Wednesday to the Reformer’s request, noting that Neeley, the lawyer for Subarctic Media responded to the FCC on Oct. 28. 

The commission, however, declined to reveal the contents of that letter, arguing that doing so could hamper an ongoing investigation.

“The Bureau is investigating the financial relationship between KTOE and a candidate for federal office,” wrote Sima Nilsson, a legal adviser to the FCC’s Media Bureau. “It is reasonably foreseeable that release of the response could hamper the progress and resolution of the investigation.”

It’s unclear when the investigation could conclude, but inquiries like this usually take several months — a process that could be drawn out by delays due to the ongoing pandemic, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a lawyer and FCC expert at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society.

Schwartzman said it’s up to the licensee to do its due diligence to ensure no communications laws are being violated by the stations it oversees. The station was required to ensure Thielfoldt and Hagedorn’s financial arrangements were disclosed on the air and to the FCC. And even if Thielfoldt wasn’t directly paid to conduct the interviews, Schwartzman said the business relationship could have factored into the decision to have Hagedorn on the air.

“It’s something that should have been disclosed on the air,” Schwartzman said. “They knew or should have known that their employee was getting compensation, and the employee’s got an obligation to tell them.”

Thielfoldt was removed from the air after the Reformer’s original report was published, and Ketelson released a statement at the time saying he did so to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Thielfoldt has not returned to the station, his name and likeness no longer appear on KTOE’s website, and his former radio show, “Al in the Afternoon,” is no longer a part of KTOE’s programming. He does still host a video political talk show produced for cable TV.

Thielfoldt received more payments from Hagedorn’s campaign since the article first ran, according to campaign finance records. The campaign paid Innovative Marketing Techniques a total of $160,000 in October for “media advertising.”

The former radio host is also not the only Thielfoldt who has appeared on Hagedorn’s campaign payroll. Both of Thielfoldt’s sons have at one time worked for the congressman’s campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records: Tate Thielfoldt was paid $2,500 for campaign consulting in September; Connor Thielfoldt was paid $5,000 several years ago as a member of Hagedorn’s campaign staff.

Thielfoldt’s and Hagedorn’s business dealings came under further scrutiny when the Mankato Free Press reported in mid-October on several invoices Thielfoldt had filed to the Hagedorn campaign, including for Hagedorn’s appearances on the air. Thielfoldt told the newspaper at the time that he simply included the times he knew Hagedorn appeared on KTOE but that it didn’t reflect anything nefarious.

Hagedorn handily won his campaign in November and was sworn in for his second term in office in January. He may face campaign finance and congressional ethics investigations this year after the Reformer revealed he had paid a company owned by a member of his own staff, and after Politico investigated his use of a rent-free campaign office.