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Dan Feehan, DFL candidate for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, chats with a group of South Central College students in October 2018 just before the Chamber’s Pizza & Politics event. (File photo/southernminn.com)

WASHINGTON — A national security think tank, an educational reform outfit and a group that works with veterans interested in getting into politics pushed back Monday against murky charges of corruption leveled by U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn in a Sunday night candidate debate against his DFL challenger Dan Feehan.

Hagedorn tried to one-up Feehan’s own accusations of corruption by leveling some of his own: That “Democrat” groups had given Feehan phony jobs to help him run for Congress. The groups — which are well known in Washington — responded that they are not progressive front organizations, and that Feehan did real work for them.

A spokesman for Feehan said the work was above board.

“As Dan said during the debate, these baseless and slanderous accusations are a desperate attempt to distract from the ethics scandal engulfing the Congressman’s office,” said Ben Reimler, spokesman for Feehan’s campaign.

He’s referring to questionable spending by Hagedorn’s congressional office, which used $450,000 of taxpayer money on positive mailers about Hagedorn. As the Reformer reported, the money went to companies owned by a member of his staff and the brother of his chief of staff.

Hagedorn shot back during the Sunday night debate, questioning the work Feehan did for three organizations: Leadership for Educational Equity, the New Politics Leadership Academy and the Center for New American Security.

Hagedorn implied the groups sought to financially prop up a Democratic candidate so he could focus on knocking off Hagedorn, a vulnerable first-term Republican, who beat Feehan in 2018 by a narrow margin.

Hagedorn has yet to substantiate the allegations, and an email to his campaign spokeswoman and call to his campaign director asking for specifics were not returned.

The campaign released a spreadsheet showing payments that Feehan had self-reported on his annual financial disclosure forms showing he was paid about $473,000 over a three year span from 2017-2019, mostly from the three above-mentioned groups.

(Feehan’s campaign says it was actually less than that — his 2019 financial disclosure shows he made $120,000 that year and the previous year from Leadership for Educational Equity. That is a mistake, according to the campaign. He was only paid by that group in 2019, and they’ve filed an amended disclosure reflecting that he received no compensation from the group in 2018.)

Spokesmen for three groups Hagedorn attacked said that Feehan did perform work at the intersection of veterans and education policy, a theme that has been a cornerstone of his campaign as an Army veteran and middle school teacher.

Cole Stevens, spokesman for the Center for a New American Security, said Feehan was a senior adjunct fellow at the think tank, which focuses on national security and defense policy research. Feehan is a veteran of the U.S. Army and was the former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for readiness in the administration of former President Barack Obama.

Stevens was indignant about Hagedorn implying the center is a Democratic shill group. The group’s board of directors includes Dick Armitage, who was a deputy secretary of state in the administration of former President George W. Bush; party-switching Sen. Joe Lieberman, who endorsed Republican John McCain for president; and, Rupert Murdoch’s son James Murdoch.

“Our CEO is Richard Fontaine. He’s a lifelong Republican. He was McCain’s foreign policy advisor. So that criticism doesn’t hold much weight,” Stevens said. “We’re a four-star rated charity. We’re very transparent about what we do, and we make sure the payments are tied to the research we’re doing.”

Leadership for Educational Equity is a nonprofit that bills itself as a group that inspires Teach for America alums to get civically involved. The group’s spokesman, Jason Llorenz, said in an emailed statement that Feehan, who taught in Chicago and Gary, Ind. for Teach for America, worked as a consultant for the group.

“(Feehan) played a key role in building LEE’s engagement and education programs to inspire LEE members who have served in the Armed Forces to further their service as civic leaders, as well as designing an educational fellowship program engaging LEE members with politics in their communities,” Llorenz said.

Feehan’s work for the New Politics Leadership Academy was along the same lines, according to the group’s spokesman, Gabriel Ramos. The nonprofit teaches military veterans how to get involved in politics. It often recruits losing Democratic candidates, paying them a stipend to reflect on their race and teach lessons to the next generation of candidates. Hagedorn’s colleague, GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher, has in the past spoken to alumni of the group, however.

“As a fellow, (Feehan) worked on a number of projects related to NPLA’s educational mission — including a research project that provided NPLA with quantitative research about the rural-urban divide,” Ramos said. “Throughout his fellowship, (Feehan) also served as co-facilitator for NPLA Foundations programming geared towards military veterans and other service alumni who are considering running for office or becoming more actively engaged in politics more broadly.”

Larry Noble, a 20-year veteran of the Federal Election Commission who now teaches law at American University, acknowledged it would be illegal for Feehan, during his candidacy, to accept money for work he didn’t do. But If Hagedorn has proof something untoward is going on, he should show his hand, Noble said.

“The congressman could file a complaint if he wanted with the (Federal Election Commission), but you know, he would need more than just saying, ‘He got paid by these people.’ He would have to allege the idea that (Feehan) didn’t do work for them,” Noble said. “The question, I guess, to the congressman is what, exactly, are you saying? What evidence do you have? What is your specific allegation? Just that he got paid? Or do you have any information that he didn’t do work?”

Daniel Newhauser is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. This article originally appeared in the Minnesota Reformer.

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