Getting reimbursed for a Trump rally gets complicated for Minneapolis

By Mike Kaszuba

More than a month after President Trump’s campaign rally at Target Center last fall, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey publicly renewed his attempt to have the campaign pay for costs associated with the event.

“This is not an issue that is limited to one candidate or one party,” said Frey, a DFLer. “This is an overarching question that we need to look at in terms of the cost that cities are forced to bear.”  At the time, the City of Minneapolis had stated that it was owed more than $542,000, and the issue had become the centerpiece of a highly-visible stand-off with Trump’s campaign.  

But nine days before the mayor’s November 2019 press conference, the rally’s costs (and questions about who would pay for them) were mired in confusion, and there was little evidence that the city was pursuing payment from the Trump campaign.

Documents obtained by Saint Paul-based non-profit Public Record Media (PRM) indicate that instead of pressuring the Republican president’s campaign, city officials instead focused their attention on AEG Facilities, the operators of the city-owned Target Center that had a contract with the Trump campaign for the rally.

And more than eight months after the rally, the city’s actions regarding the Trump event remain unclear – even as the U.S. heads into the heart of the 2020 presidential campaign.

E-mails show confusion about rally aftermath 

The more than 1,500 pages of city e-mails show how Minneapolis officials struggled over what to do for months – and at one point sent AEG a bill for $208,770, less than half of what the city said the rally cost taxpayers.  

One top city police official urged that money owed to one company, Warning Lites of Minnesota, which provided traffic barriers for the rally, needed to be paid immediately – regardless of the dispute with AEG and the Trump campaign.  “If we don’t pay up, then anytime we have a similar situation, we won’t have any vendors who will be willing to assist us,” he wrote.

The November 18th e-mail from Minneapolis Police Commander Scott Gerlicher illustrated the overall confusion.  Gerlicher wrote that he had been informed that “AEG [won’t] pay and the Mayor’s Office has directed city to not pay, meaning Warning Lites is left holding the bag for services until something is worked out.  [This] could end up taking months,” he said.

A Warning Lites representative added that, after being told by the city to go to AEG for payment, AEG informed her that “Target Center could not/would not pay the invoice.” The Warning Lites representative, Jamie Ptacek, then asked the city, “what is the next step to receive payment for this invoice?  It has already been a month.”

Documents obtained from the city showed that while Frey and Trump’s campaign publicly clashed over who would pay for the rally’s costs, the behind-the-scenes story was more complicated.

Preparing for an unprecedented campaign event

City documents also detailed how Minneapolis rushed to prepare for a rally unlike most any other.  Three days before the event, a city official wrote that protesters had secured enough money to “fly the big Baby Trump balloon.”  The official noted that the balloon “is known to draw a lot more folks out just to see it and take selfies with the balloon.” Another e-mail showed that police were told to provide parking for a motorcade of up to 100 vehicles, and to provide a “counter-sniper liaison” for the U.S. Secret Service. Meanwhile, a local attorney told City Council member Lisa Goodman that if Trump filed a lawsuit against Minneapolis he knew lawyers who would be willing to volunteer to defend the city.

“This event really doesn’t have a precedent,” Greta Bergstrom, the city’s director of communications, wrote in an e-mail two days before the rally.  “He is a sitting President, in the middle of a re-election campaign, in a post-911 (and very polarized) world.”

Meanwhile, others tried to find out exactly how the city planned to engage the campaign as the event drew near.

“Are we seeking half a million in expenses? Or is AEG doing that? Or is [the] Trump campaign making that up? Please clarify,” City Council member Steve Fletcher wrote to Mark Ruff, the city’s interim coordinator, three days before Trump’s rally.

The 1,500 pages contained no correspondence between the city and the campaign itself.  Some internal city e-mails that discussed the specifics of the payment issue were blacked out by the city, which cited attorney-client privilege.

Complicated relationship between Minneapolis and AEG

Documents indicate that the city’s relationship with AEG in regards to the rally’s costs was complicated – and may have become even more so in the aftermath of the rally itself.

Three months after the rally, e-mails showed that the head of the Minneapolis Convention Center sent a bill for $208,770 to AEG for the city’s rally-related costs.  On the same day Jeff Johnson, the executive director of the city convention center, informed the city’s interim coordinator that “[if] possible, I would prefer to address the invoice to the Trump Campaign c/o AEG Minneapolis.”  The documents do not indicate whether the bill was paid.

In a January 5th e-mail, city interim coordinator Mark Ruff told Johnson that both the mayor and the city attorney had indicated that the bill should be directed to AEG.

As the city’s internal discussions continued, Johnson told Ruff that under one scenario, “if AEG does not pay, the A/R becomes bad debt against AEG and goes through Council for write off (this usually happens several years in the future).”

(A city spokesman told PRM in early May – and again in early June, eight months after the Trump rally occurred – that the city had not yet been reimbursed for its rally costs.  “Nothing has concluded yet and the City is still in discussion.  The City does expect reimbursement,” said Casper Hill, a city spokesman.

Hill added that the $208,770 represented “the calculation of reimbursable expenses directly attributable to the event,” but said that the city would have no further comment).

As the rally was about to take place, documents showed that then-City Attorney Susan Segal was examining the city’s contract with AEG for Target Center operations – particularly in regard to what constituted operating expenses for the arena.

“It is the City’s position that the expenses the City will be required to incur as a result of AEG’s decision to enter into an agreement for this event constitute ‘Arena Operating Expenses’,” she wrote in an e-mail message two days before the rally.

“The City has no knowledge of the terms of that agreement or conditions” with the Trump campaign, Segal added.  “That decision is entirely within the hands of AEG.”

Documents show that shortly before the rally took place, AEG and the city appeared to be more understanding of each others’ positions.

“We completely understand the City’s position that it cannot cover the police and other emergency services expenses,” wrote Chuck Steedman, an official at ASM Global.  (ASM Global was formed last year by AEG Facilities and a second company – SMG.) Steedman sent the e-mail to Johnson on the 5th of October – five days before Trump’s rally in downtown Minneapolis.  “As the Target Center can neither pay nor advance these expenses either (as it would constitute a campaign contribution), we will inform the campaign,” Steedman added.

“Presuming they maintain that they cannot cover the expenses, we will be left with the option of cancelling the event. We will certainly keep you in the loop as the conversations unfold,” Steedman wrote.

In the days before the rally, there was other evidence that the city and AEG were on the same page.  At one point, AEG and the city worked on a joint statement to the media.  “We want to remain as neutral as possible and also want to make sure as stewards of this City owned asset we are in coordination with you on messaging,” AEG Facilities regional director of marketing Rosie Selle wrote to a city official on September 26th.

Despite the coordination, there were subtle indications the city wanted to emphasize that AEG – and not the city – managed Target Center and had booked the Trump rally.  After an AEG representative prepared a one-paragraph statement, Bergstrom, the city’s communications director, noted that the city had “some tweaks” to it.  The city’s revised statement – unlike the initial statement drafted by AEG — began by saying that Target Center was “independently managed by AEG Facilities.”

Ruff, the city’s interim coordinator, also wrote to Selle and alerted her that there might be problems ahead.  “Questions about how public safety expenses of the city associated with this event will be paid are already coming in. I am working with Jeff Johnson on these issues but want to raise awareness that we will also need to be addressing that message as well,” Ruff wrote.

Mayor’s office provides briefing paper to national media

As the Trump campaign attacked the mayor over having to pay the rally’s costs, documents indicate that Frey’s office seemed to see an opportunity to elevate the mayor’s profile nationally.

On the day before the rally, city officials gave Frey a thirteen-page briefing paper as he prepared to do a series of national media interviews.  The memo offered key points “related to the role of local government with this administration, background on Trump policies, and a list of [Mayor Frey’s] accomplishments.”

The briefing paper included a detailed listing of ten other cities, including Green Bay, Wisconsin and El Paso, Texas, that also had not been reimbursed costs associated with Trump rallies. According to the document, the unpaid costs totaled more than $941,000.  “The chief of police made an in-person request to Trump’s campaign manager for the Billings office for reimbursement. No payment received and no communication,” the document stated, summarizing the aftermath of a 2018 Trump rally in Billings, Montana.

But in many cases, the briefing paper went far beyond the issue of rally costs.

The paper offered Frey suggestions on how to highlight his accomplishments on housing, immigration, climate change and police reform.  It also offered “policy contrast” examples between the White House and Minneapolis.  “This Administration has chosen to ignore science, promote drilling on public land, bully states like California into abandoning clean air policies, withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, and even sit back and watch as the lungs of the Earth burn,” the briefing paper stated.

“The Trump administration has approached just about every issue – from immigration to LGBTQ rights – from a punitive lens,” the paper added.  “Minneapolis is a city of second chances and of compassion,” the document offered as a contrast.

The mayor’s briefing paper also had a prepared explanation for a thorny issue – the fact that the head of the Minneapolis police union planned to appear at the rally supporting Trump, and that the union sold “Cops for Trump” t-shirts.

“Our officers, like anyone else, [have] a right to free speech and to support whichever candidate they choose.  However as soon as they [put on] that uniform, they are neither democrat nor republican,” the briefing papers stated.

The Trump campaign was quick to cast Frey’s stance as an attempt to increase his profile.  “People want to hear from their President, and no mayor looking to beef up his resume for a run for higher office should stand in the way,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement three days before the rally.

Four days after the Trump event, city officials gave Frey a sixteen-page briefing paper in advance of another media interview.  “Today you will do an interview with Mitch Smith from the New York Times about the community’s reaction to the President’s anti-Somali rhetoric,” the briefing paper began.

After the rally, the Washington Post also contacted Frey, and offered to have him write an op-ed column for the newspaper.  As the column was being finalized, a city official told the Post via e-mail that Frey had “made a few stylistic edits throughout, mostly to the portion dedicated to the president’s inconsistencies.”

But another Washington Post editor told a city official that Frey’s column needed to address a finding by PolitiFact, an online fact-checking service, that raised questions about how much the city charged for President Obama’s 2009 rally in Minneapolis, compared to what Trump was being charged.

“As you’re probably aware, the PolitiFact check about the cost of the Obama 2009 rally versus the Trump rally came down on the side of “true” regarding Trump’s complaint,” wrote the Post’s Mark Lasswell.  “Needed to address that in [some] way, even obliquely.”

Some of the documents also showed the editing changes that were made to earlier versions of Frey’s briefing papers.

In one briefing paper – prepared for a late December 2019 media interview – the mayor was given talking points to show how he was “getting better at navigating the unexpected.”

One paragraph initially read: “For example, I think that if President Trump had started attacking the city and me personally during my first week in office, I would have felt some panic about how to respond. But I’m proud of the response that we gave – I think we did a good job of standing up for our progressive values.”

But the paragraph had a red line drawn through it.

Questions raised about reimbursements

Nine days before the October 10th rally, there were signs that some city officials were skeptical of the city’s chances of being reimbursed for its costs.  One city official, Robin McPherson, said in an October 1st e-mail that a projected budget adjustment “assumes we do not get reimbursed for the Trump rally. I know [the city] is working on the reimbursement but I’m taking a worse case approach.”

And there were indications nearly two weeks after the rally that the city was debating whether to seek reimbursement.  “It has not yet been decided if the City will move forward on seeking reimbursement,” Kathy Waite, the city’s deputy police chief, wrote in an October 23rd e-mail message.

Other e-mails detailed two key issues:  that city officials were vague about whether they were pushing the Trump campaign for reimbursement, and also about where things stood between the city and AEG.

While the city had estimated its costs at $530,000 prior to the rally, a city staffer later said that arriving at an exact figure would take time.  “The City’s first task is to gather staff costs,” city official Sarah McKenzie told a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter on October 15th – five days after the rally.  “Police finance staff will need at least two to three weeks to get data from payroll systems and determine hours spent, overtime, etc. The City continues to talk with AEG regularly. City staff have not set a deadline to wrap these conversations up.”

Nearly two weeks after the rally, the editor-at-large of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) – a Washington, D.C.-based investigative journalism non-profit – asked the city “if there’s been any action on Minneapolis’ efforts to compel payment from the Trump campaign.”

After CPI sent this e-mail, Frey press secretary Darwin Forsyth contacted Mychal Vlatkovich, the mayor’s communications director.  “I know we don’t know the dollar figure yet, and the reporter hasn’t chased me,” wrote Forsyth, “but it would be helpful to know the status of the legal side soonish so that we’re not scrambling when local reporters start asking.”

Nearly a month after Levinthal contacted Forsyth for an update, Forsyth replied to him.  “I know it’s been a while,” Forsyth wrote in a November 18th e-mail, and “I will get you an update as soon as I have one!”

Seeking details about bill to AEG

At a press conference in late November, Frey put the city’s rally costs at $542,000, and stated that the city had not submitted a bill to AEG.

In mid-February, a month after city e-mails showed that Minneapolis had sent a bill to AEG, the city was asked again by a reporter about the rally’s costs.  Casper Hill, the city’s media relations coordinator, wrote in a February 12th e-mail that a Twin Cities Business reporter wanted to know “if the City is still trying to collect payment from the Trump campaign for the October rally at Target Center, and if so he’d like to know the amount being sought and any updates on discussions with the campaign.”

The inquiry led to six e-mail exchanges between city officials, including Ruff and the city’s attorney.  All of the e-mails were redacted, citing attorney-client privilege.

Later that same month, the city was asked by a television reporter whether the issue had been resolved – either with the Trump campaign or with AEG.  “All I can share at this stage,” replied city communications director Bergstrom, “is that nothing has concluded yet and the City is still in discussions. The City does expect reimbursement of venue-related expenses.”

Documents show difficulty locating city information

Other e-mail messages provided glimpses into the difficulty of locating documents about the rally and subsequent reimbursement issues.  A Minneapolis official was told in a December 2019 e-mail that a city computer search was having trouble finding documents on the topic.  “No emails between the Mayor/his office, City Departments, and a third party discussing reasons for charging for the event.  Now, either this doesn’t exist or it precedes the requestor’s time frame,” Jacob Crawford, a city official, was told by a computer researcher.

Similarly, a local television reporter complained in February – four months after Trump’s campaign rally — that he had received 2,500 pages of documents from the city, but the correspondence did not answer “basic questions.” The reporter told the city the documents did not reveal whether the city had been reimbursed for its expenses, or whether “the City [was] still trying to recoup those expenses from the Trump Campaign[.]”

The documents showed that six internal e-mails from, among others, the city’s attorney and its interim city coordinator, discussed the reporter’s inquiry.  But the contents of all of the messages were deemed to be “not public,” and were blacked out.