St. Paul council member may have crossed legal line, experts say
ST. PAUL — If St. Paul City Council member Dai Thao signaled during a private meeting last winter that his vote could be swayed by a campaign donation, he may have crossed a legal line, according to political ethics experts and lobbyists.
Larry Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, said such cases are rare in the state.
"It's not unheard of, but it's pretty unusual," Jacobs said. "It's something, frankly, most Minnesota politicians learn to stay away from quite early in their careers. In a place like Chicago, 'pay to play' is the norm."
David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University, said the likelihood of federal investigators being called in is strong, especially if additional potential accusers come forward.
Lobbyists and legal experts say they're taken aback at accusations that Thao may have pressured prominent Minneapolis lobbyist Sarah Clarke and her client, a food-container company, to fund his mayoral campaign in exchange for a vote in favor of their policy recommendations.
Thao met with Clarke and representatives of the Michigan-based Dart Container Corp. at a Selby Avenue coffee shop in February to discuss the city's "Green To-Go" initiative, which would ban non-recyclable restaurant takeout containers.
As the company explained that its food packaging could be recycled under the right circumstances and should be exempt from the ban, Clarke maintains that Thao repeatedly noted his need for "resources" for his mayoral campaign.
Later that day, his campaign manager allegedly sent Clarke a text message indicating that Thao wanted a donation from her client and would "rethink" their issue. Clarke said in a TV news report that she rejected the request, citing state bribery statutes, and Dart officials said this week they did not make a donation.
The St. Paul Police Department referred the case to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is investigating.
Thao has said he did nothing wrong and the allegations were a "bait and switch." He added that the facts, as they emerge, would exonerate him and that he looks "forward to cooperating with any criminal investigation."
What's the big deal?
Politicians meet with lobbyists, political action committees and business representatives all the time, and campaign money changes hands often.
So what's the big deal?
Blois Olson, a political consultant, said it's common for lobbying firms to make campaign donations to politicians, but only after they have accepted their policy positions and have already voted the way they like.
"Usually, it's post-case," Olson said.
Jacobs added: "Seeking money to change a policy position is illegal, and there's a long history of people going to jail for what's known as bribery."
High-profile bribery, extortion and kick-back cases may not come to light often in Twin Cities politics, but they do occur.
Former Minneapolis City Council member Dean Zimmermann spent 17 months in a minimum-security federal prison after being convicted in August 2006 of accepting bribes from developer Basim Sabri.
Sia Lo, a policy adviser to then-St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, resigned his position in April 2005 after the FBI opened an investigation into whether he solicited a bribe from a funeral home developer to help get a construction project approved at City Hall.
Some political observers believe there may be some gray area in the Thao case.
Chuck Repke, a registered lobbyist and campaign worker active in the St. Paul DFL Party, said Clarke made a misstep when she arranged a meeting with Thao through his campaign manager — an outlet more commonly used by campaign donors and political backers.
That decision may have blurred the lines, at least in Thao's mind, between a policy discussion and a campaign session, where it might be appropriate to ask for money.
"Let's call it 'Lobbyist 101'," said Repke, who will attend the DFL city convention in June as uncommitted to a particular candidate. "You don't call the council member's office to set up political events and you don't call the campaign manager to schedule business meetings. You keep those things separate."
Some also note that when approached by a KMSP-TV reporter about the allegations, Thao fired campaign manager Angela Marlow the same day.
'I think he's in huge trouble'
Schultz, who reviewed the text messages between Marlow and Clarke at KMSP's request, said the council member's actions are blatant.
"I think he's in huge trouble," Schultz said. "I don't think his campaign manager could have made those statements to a lobbyist unless she had some passive or overt message from Dai Thao that he was willing to do this."
Marlow's text to Clarke stated: "Dai asked me to see if I could get a donation from your clients or yourself for his mayor campaign? My understanding is that (Dart officials) are leaving tomorrow. We will certainly rethink this issue."
Clarke has maintained that other alleged victims have contacted her. Olson, the political consultant, said the strength of a BCA investigation could rest on whether they share their stories.
"I think the real question is, are there any other cases? Are there any other examples that people will use with this campaign or this council member?" Olson said.
The mayoral election is Nov. 7.
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