Criminal investigators are looking into an allegation that St. Paul mayoral candidate Dai Thao's campaign solicited a bribe.

Thao, who is also a City Council member, met with lobbyist Sarah Clarke and some of her clients in February to discuss the city's potential ban on Styrofoam and other food packaging, an issue that would come before Thao as a council member and on the campaign trail. During that meeting, Thao said he needed "resources to spread his message," Clarke said.

It seemed clear he was asking for a campaign contribution, she said, and they were shocked. After the meeting, Angela Marlow, then Thao's campaign manager, texted her.

"Dai asked me to see if I could get a donation from your clients or yourself for his mayor campaign? My understanding is that they are leaving tomorrow. We will certainly rethink this issue. We are also happy to support Jacob in his mayor run as well," Marlow wrote, referring to Minneapolis mayoral candidate Jacob Frey, who is Clarke's husband.

Clarke replied that it might violate campaign finance laws and any donation could be "misperceived as a bribe under Minnesota Statute." Neither she nor her client would make a contribution to Thao's campaign, she said in the text.

State law prohibits a public officer or employee from requesting benefits or reward with the understanding that it will influence their power or duties.

Thao is one of six people running for the open mayor's seat. The allegations emerged as DFL mayoral candidates were in the midst of ward caucuses, a process that concluded Sunday. Thao came out of the caucuses with the second-most delegates, behind Melvin Carter and ahead of Pat Harris. Both Thao and Carter have said they would abide by the endorsement at the June 17 convention.

Thao fired Marlow Saturday after Fox 9 News reported that they had attempted to solicit a bribe. Afterward, Thao put out a news release saying, "Today, I learned that two months ago my campaign manager solicited an illegal contribution from lobbyists. I had no knowledge of this, did not sanction it and do not condone these actions."

Marlow said that is untrue and the St. Paul City Attorney's office had previously talked with Thao about the rumor that someone in his campaign team had texted a bribe. City Attorney Sammy Clark said attorney-client privilege prevents his staff from talking about what they might have known, but he said they didn't see the texts until Saturday.

"[Thao] is throwing me under the bus," Marlow said.

"All I have to say for now is I look forward to cooperating with any investigation that may occur," Thao said Monday, declining to comment further.

Marlow previously raised funds for state Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, and is involved with local AFSCME union leadership, but said working with Thao was her first time managing a campaign. She said she is not plugged in to St. Paul issues and did not know the packaging materials ban would come before the City Council. It was standard protocol for her to follow up and ask for a donation after Thao met with people about issues in the mayor's race, she said.

To set up the February meeting, Clarke initially messaged Marlow on Facebook and asked to meet with Thao to talk about "the St. Paul materials ban as this will be in [sic] an issue in the mayoral race." Clarke said the goal of the meeting was to educate him on the issue because it will come up on the campaign trail. She and her clients met with other mayoral candidates, and she said, "They didn't ask us for bribes."

Through tears Monday, Clarke said she didn't intend for the news to get out. She shared Marlow's messages with someone in confidence and that person leaked them, she said. Clarke shared the text messages with the Star Tribune on Monday after Thao named her publicly.

Over the past couple of days, people have reached out to her with other stories about Thao asking for campaign contributions, Clarke said.

"I have heard rumors, but nothing firsthand, about maybe inappropriate behaviors in his meetings with others," said City Council President Russ Stark, who is supporting Carter in the mayor's race. When it comes to votes on the council, Stark said, "He is someone who often likes to insist on support for something that's important to him in exchange for support on something else."

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman contacted Police Chief Todd Axtell about the news over the weekend. Axtell decided to ask the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) to look into the allegations. In a letter Axtell sent to the BCA on Monday, he said he would leave it to the agency's discretion to determine whether the FBI should also review the situation.

"I've come to the conclusion that further investigation is warranted," Axtell said in a statement. "It's my duty and obligation as police chief to follow up any time allegations of criminal activity are made — regardless of who is involved or what position they hold. In addition, I have to avoid conflicts of interest."

The BCA will investigate and present its findings to the St. Paul City Attorney's Office or Ramsey County attorney's office, BCA spokeswoman Jill Oliveira said.

Marlow works for the Ramsey County attorney's office as a child support enforcement agent and Thao works for St. Paul. So staff from the city and county attorneys' offices said they would have a different prosecutor review any findings to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Marlow said she plans to bring her timeline of events to BCA staff Tuesday and offer to help with their investigation.

Jessie Van Berkel • 612-673-4649