It’s been nearly four months since the St. Paul mayor’s race ended. But for Council Member Dai Thao, the campaign isn’t over.
Thao, who placed third in the election for mayor, is scheduled to appear in Ramsey County District Court on Tuesday to face three misdemeanor charges of violating rules designed to keep candidates from manipulating voters on Election Day.
Thao says he was trying to help an elderly Hmong voter on Nov. 6, when authorities said he drove her to a polling place and helped her fill out her ballot. The accusation arose weeks after prosecutors declined to charge Thao in a separate criminal investigation into allegations that his campaign solicited a bribe from a lobbyist.
Throughout the turmoil of the past year, his supporters have stayed loyal to a politician they see as an outsider fighting against the status quo.
“When someone from a marginalized community rises up and runs for office, we start discovering a lot of barriers to voting,” said Cindy Yang, a former campaign volunteer who said she’s planning to attend a rally at the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center to support Thao. “I feel like these are systemic issues, and it’s unfortunately plaguing Dai right now.”
Thao, 42, responded to the accusations by saying that he misunderstood the situation or was simply trying to do the right thing. The cases have laid bare the inner workings of a mayoral campaign that was troubled from the start and a candidate hobbled by what former campaign staff say was a chaotic campaign.
“I have helped multiple candidates with their campaign operations — both before and after those few months that I volunteered my time to help Dai’s team — and I can definitively say that I have never seen a campaign run the way that his was,” said Ben Baglio, a former campaign volunteer. “And when it comes down to it, that’s on the candidate.”
Thao has said he has no intention of resigning, and a misdemeanor conviction would not require him to do so.
His attorney, Joe Dixon, emphasized in a statement Friday that “there is no allegation that Dai did anything intentionally wrong.”
“Moreover, we contend that his conduct was completely lawful,” Dixon said. “Of course, a judge will need to decide what kind of assistance is lawful in helping voters overcome language barriers and physical disabilities so that they can exercise their constitutional right to vote.”
Thao became St. Paul’s first Hmong council member when he was elected in 2013. He launched his mayoral campaign in December 2016, backed by a team of mostly unpaid staff new to campaign leadership roles. By the time DFL caucuses began in April, he was considered one of the top candidates.
On April 29, Fox 9 broke the story that would dog the campaign for months. During a February meeting with lobbyist Sarah Clarke to discuss a proposed ban on plastic foam food packaging that the council was considering, Thao told Clarke that he needed “resources,” according to a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigative file. According to the BCA report, after the meeting Thao texted his campaign manager, Angela Marlow, asking, “Did you get money from Sarah?” Marlow later texted Clarke, whose client manufactured food packaging, to ask for a campaign contribution.
After the allegations emerged, Thao put out a statement saying he did not know of or sanction Marlow’s solicitation, and he fired her. Marlow told investigators her former boss did know.
Marlow is now setting up a consulting firm, and she says Thao’s biggest problem during the mayoral campaign was lacking the right advisers. “I never had any ill will toward Dai,” Marlow said in an interview. “I think that Dai has made a series of bad moves.”
Thao told BCA and FBI investigators that he went into the meeting with Clarke thinking it was about his mayoral campaign. He said when they began talking about the food-packaging proposal, he excused himself, according to a transcript of the interview in the criminal investigative file.
“I went to the bathroom, and I [texted] my team ... what’s happening here?” he said. At least one staffer responded saying they also thought the meeting was about the campaign, Thao told investigators.
The BCA report shows communication between Thao and his staffers, and among staffers themselves, was a problem. In an interview last year with BCA and FBI investigators, Baglio described the campaign as “chaotic and disorganized.” In a separate interview, former volunteer Joe Kreisman called it “an incompetent campaign.”
In a statement Friday, Thao said his campaign offered an opportunity for young people and people without previous campaign experience.
“In community organizing one of the goals is to create opportunity for disenfranchised community members, women and young people to have the opportunity to learn and be leaders in the community,” he said. “Electoral and issue campaigns aren’t just about winning, it’s also about getting your vision out there and building leaders for the future.”
The BCA completed its investigation into the bribery allegation in June. In September, the Scott County Attorney’s Office declined to file charges.
The 403-page BCA report focuses on the bribery allegation but also includes questions from investigators about Thao’s personal and campaign finances.
Marlow told investigators she accompanied Thao to King Thai restaurant in March, and a man she believed to be Thao’s former father-in-law handed over about $10,000 in cash from a fundraiser. Marlow said the man provided a list of campaign donors, but there didn’t seem to be enough names to account for that amount of money. She told investigators the man took a few thousand dollars for a future fundraiser and Thao took the rest, saying he’d keep it in a safe at his house until they received a complete donor list.
Reached by phone, Thao’s wife and campaign treasurer, Amee Xiong, told the Star Tribune she hadn’t read the BCA report but denied Marlow’s account. A campaign finance report showed Thao’s campaign reported raising more than $18,000 in March 2017.
In his May 18 interview with investigators, Thao was asked by an FBI agent if he had ever received an in-kind contribution, and Thao began to describe a duplex he owns in St. Paul that he used for campaign purposes.
“So, if you own it, that’s not really an [in-kind] contribution,” the agent said.
“Oh, OK,” Thao replied.
According to the report, investigators had started asking Thao about finances when Dixon, his attorney, stopped the interview and asked Thao to leave the room.
Dixon told investigators he had understood the interview would focus on the bribery allegation and wanted to know why it was leading to other issues.
The BCA investigator brought up Marlow’s account of the transaction in March. Thao did not return to the interview, according to the transcript, but voluntarily provided bank records that investigators asked for, Dixon said.
In his statement to the Star Tribune, Dixon said the timing of the bribery allegation “made plain that it was intended to cause a law enforcement investigation so as to undermine Dai’s campaign for mayor.”
“Dai was cleared and the allegation was proven to be baseless,” Dixon said. “Of course, the damage to Dai was already done.”