The lobbyist at the heart of a government corruption investigation in St. Paul spoke publicly for the first time Monday, as the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension confirmed it has launched a criminal probe.
Lobbyist Sarah Clarke said she met with council member Dai Thao at a St. Paul coffee shop in February about food packaging, and that remarks by Thao, who is also running for mayor of St. Paul, made it uncomfortable.
"He said at one point that he needed resources, to which my client responded that they would be happy to provide him with additional information," Clarke recalled. "Again, he said he needed resources to spread his message."
There was little doubt among the clients she attended the meeting with what Thao meant, said Clarke.
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"There were four of us total. And it was clear to all of us that this was a solicitation for a campaign contribution," Clarke said.
Dai Thao has denied any wrongdoing. But immediately after that February meeting his campaign manager followed up with a text message to Clarke asking specifically for a contribution to his campaign for mayor. Thao fired campaign manager Angela Marlow over the weekend, after Twin Cities TV station Fox 9 reported the story.
Clarke doesn't believe that Marlow acted without Thao's approval.
"The fact that he made this request in person during a meeting then had his campaign manager follow up with me with a text message suggests to me that this is not a problem with the campaign manager, but rather she was following orders from the council member," Clarke said.
The incident was not "business as usual," according to Clarke, no matter what the public perception of how lobbying works.
"I was shocked to receive this message," Clarke said. "I have not encountered anything like this in my time working in politics here in Minnesota."
Clarke has some experience with city councils and how they work. She's married to Minneapolis city council member Jacob Frey, who's running for mayor of Minneapolis.
Clarke said she was initially reluctant to speak publicly because of the attention it would draw to her, and possibly her husband and her clients. But she says she's been encouraged by the response she's seen to the matter coming to light.
"I'm getting a lot of support, which is very kind. But I'm also hearing people having similar stories involving council member Thao," Clarke said. "In Minnesota, where I think we do by and large such a great job of keeping our politics clean and ethical, it's just shocking to me."
Thao did not respond to an inquiry to his campaign about any other cases or to a request for more information about the Clarke matter, which he said over the weekend was forthcoming.
The allegations involving Thao come as he is engaged in a DFL endorsement battle with three other candidates for mayor of St. Paul.
Incumbent Chris Coleman is leaving the office next year to run for governor. Coleman said Sunday that he had turned the matter of the allegations involving Thao over to police chief Todd Axtell, who in turn asked the BCA to investigate.
A BCA spokeswoman said in a statement that the agency will gather the facts and present its findings to prosecutors. The Ramsey County Attorney's office said Monday that Thao's campaign manager, Angela Marlow, who was directly involved in the matter, works in the office's child support division. A spokesman said Ramsey County will ask the BCA to refer to an outside agency for any prosecuting decisions.
Bribery — either asking for or giving money — in return for official action, is a felony in Minnesota and under federal law.