E-mails between U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn and members of his congressional staff show the southern Minnesota Republican was personally involved in decisions about a high volume of publicly funded constituent mail that led to the dismissal of his chief of staff.
Hagedorn's heavy spending on constituent mail in the first three months of the year, some of it contracted out to a company owned by a part-time staffer, added up to more than one-fifth of his entire $1.4 million annual office budget, according to Legistorm, a service that tracks congressional spending.
Hagedorn, first elected to the House in 2018 from southern Minnesota's First District, spent more of his total office budget than any other member of Congress by the end of March.
Hagedorn's office announced earlier this month that he had fired Peter Su, his chief of staff. Su declined a request to comment.
Hagedorn also drew scrutiny for directing printing jobs to a Texas-based company owned or partly owned by John Sample, who is also listed as a part-time paid staffer in Hagedorn's congressional office. Sample remains on his public payroll.
Much of the rest of the work was sent to a Delaware-based company whose ownership has not been disclosed.
In a public statement after Su's dismissal, Hagedorn said that decisions about mailings had been "fully delegated" to his chief of staff. In an e-mail Tuesday night in response to this story, Rachael Grooms, a spokeswoman for Hagedorn's re-election campaign, reiterated that.
"It goes without saying that Congressman Hagedorn routinely reviews the content of communications sent on his behalf to the media and constituents, but he had no role in selecting the vendors or approving the contracts," said the statement from Grooms, which came in response to an inquiry earlier in the day to Hagedorn's congressional office.
The statement from Grooms said Hagedorn became aware of the issue in mid-June after which he retained outside counsel to perform an independent review. She also said findings and recommendations from the review "will be made available to the public."
The e-mails obtained by the Star Tribune show Hagedorn, in both 2019 and early 2020, managing aspects of the constituent mail, which is known in Capitol Hill parlance as taxpayer-funded "franked mail," much of it in the form of postcards and letters to residents in his district.
"We should send an updated mail piece on Cambria," he wrote on Sept. 5, 2019, to several senior office staffers. "Our successful bipartisan efforts to punish China for illegal dumping of quartz products and stealing intellectual property has helped to defend Le Sueur-based Cambria and 1,000 good-paying jobs in southern Minnesota."
Neither Hagedorn's office nor his campaign spokeswoman disputed the authenticity of the e-mails.
The e-mails were shared with the Star Tribune by a former staffer in Hagedorn's congressional office who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. Several people have left Hagedorn's office recently, according to the staffer. Most of the e-mails include Hagedorn and multiple recipients.
"I have a couple of changes to make for the language on this postcard. Give me until around noon thanks," Hagedorn wrote to staffers in an Aug. 19, 2019, e-mail. Another August 2019 e-mail, this one to Hagedorn, explains that the office had sent out 67,800 pieces of mail so far that year, and shares details about several upcoming mailers. Another message to Hagedorn that same day includes additional details about the volume of mail, and information about the counties of origin and demographics of constituents.
A message sent March 2, 2020, from Hagedorn's press secretary to several office staffers anticipated possible questions or concerns about the volume of constituent mail coming from Hagedorn's office.
"By the way, if we get any questions on Franked mail, the answer is: 'Every mass mailer from Rep. Hagedorn's office has been approved by the bipartisan, Democrat-led Franking Commission. As a freshman member, Rep. Hagedorn feels it is extremely important to keep his constituents informed about the work he is doing in Congress," the press secretary wrote. Hagedorn was not among the recipients of that message.
Between January and the end of March, Hagedorn spent $570,176 of his annual $1.43 million congressional office budget, nearly 40% of his allowed expenses for the year and more than any other member of Congress.
His spending during the first quarter of the year included $272,759 for printing and official congressional mail to constituents — 20% of his entire annual budget. The average member of Congress spent less than 1% of their budget on mailings during the same period, according to Legistorm.
Hagedorn e-mailed several staffers about the high spending rate after Legistorm posted a short item about it June 8.
"We will be spending far less than others in the last 3 quarters. No big deal. They told us to send out mail to keep our constituents informed — and that we did!" Hagedorn wrote. House members are not allowed to send franked mail less than 90 days before a primary or general election in which they are on the ballot, an incentive to spend available dollars early in a calendar year.
More than $60,000 of the spending on printing in the first quarter went to Texas-based Invocq Technologies LLC. The same company also received $41,088 from Hagedorn's office in September last year, according to congressional spending reports.
In response to a Star Tribune inquiry about the spending at the end of July, Carol Stevenson, acting then as Hagedorn's interim chief of staff, said Sample and his company "acted as a vendor for Congressman Hagedorn's office consistent with all regulations promulgated by the House Committee on Administration."
Bryson Morgan, a lawyer who spent several years as an investigative counsel with the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, said a handbook guides how members can use office funds. It says members are prohibited from using funds to financially benefit themselves or anyone with whom they have a personal relationship.
"I think it's pretty clear that a member's office should not be spending [member's representational allowance] hiring a business that is owned by a person on the congressional staff," Morgan said.
Another company, Abernathy West LLC, received the most funding, taking in more than $181,000 in the first quarter of this year and $158,061 between October and the end of December last year for printing and reproduction. The company, incorporated in Delaware last August, has no public information available about its owner.
Hagedorn, the son of a former Republican congressman, worked as a congressional staffer in the 1980s, and later worked for the U.S. Department of Treasury. He faces a re-election challenge from Democrat Dan Feehan, whom he narrowly defeated in 2018.
In a tweet Sunday, Feehan called for Hagedorn to explain his spending: "This is what people hate about politics and it's why DC is broken … It's time for Jim Hagedorn to answer to the people of #MN01."
Hagedorn promotes himself as a fiscal and social conservative and is a strong supporter of President Donald Trump. Hagedorn in 2018 married Jennifer Carnahan, the chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party.
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Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042