What was supposed to be a swanky Summit Avenue fundraiser for Sen. Al Franken tonight was abruptly canceled when Franken discovered that the would-be host of the St. Paul event had served a year in prison for swindling some northern Minnesotans, including a Catholic priest.

Mark Erjavec, who describes himself as an entrepreneur specializing in distressed real estate, may be a newcomer to the political scene, but he is well known in the courtroom. Besides the 1997 theft-by-swindle conviction, the 33-year-old Erjavec has faced more than $100,000 in civil judgments and tax liens. General Electric sued him for copyright infringement. His personal website has a link to what he calls "dirty laundry" litigation.

Franken's staff was unaware of Erjavec's past until Tuesday, when they hastily pulled the plug on an event that could have proven politically embarrassing. Franken was to have attended the evening fundraiser.

Citing a need to keep a wall between his official duties and his campaign, Franken's senatorial spokeswoman, Jess McIntosh, said she could not discuss how the campaign found out about Erjavec's background, who may have vetted him as a host or why his past was not discovered until two days before the event.

Franken's campaign finance director, Dinah Dale, released a statement to the Star Tribune on Wednesday that said: "As soon as we learned about Mr. Erjavec's past, we acted immediately to cancel the fundraiser he was hosting. We notified everyone who had RSVP'd to the event and offered to have them as guests sometime in the future." Dale declined to comment further on the incident.

Franken, who had hosted a small health care roundtable on Wednesday, said afterward that "I didn't know anything about it until I was told about it. I knew we had a fundraiser [scheduled] and then we didn't."

Franken said his campaign would do a better job of vetting hosts in the future. "There is going to be a change in how we do things," he said.

Erjavec was to have hosted the fundraiser at a $1.8 million mansion two doors down from the James J. Hill House with his wife, a former Russian national rhythmic gymnastics team coach. Suggested contributions included $2,400 for a co-host, $1,000 for a sponsor, $500 for a benefactor, $250 for a patron and $100 for a friend.

A checkered past

In 1997, Erjavec was convicted of theft by swindle and sentenced to 13 months in prison in St. Louis County. In a separate incident, a Catholic priest from Chisholm said he invested $10,000 of his own and the parish's finances in a certificate of deposit that turned out to be forged.

"It was a Ponzi scheme. He would pay off people with other people's money," Erjavec's uncle, Frank Erjavec, said in an interview. Frank Erjavec said he noticed a disparity in the documents and alerted the priest, who was able to recover his funds. "Would I personally trust him with my money? I would have to say, no," Frank Erjavec said.

Mark Erjavec's lawyer at the time, Virginia, Minn., attorney Bruce Williams, said Erjavec, who was 21, was immature and regretted his actions, which affected the reputation of his family in their close-knit Iron Range community. "He did his time and life goes on," Williams said. "As to whether Senator Franken should have him hosting fundraisers, you'd have to ask the senator that."

In May of this year, the IRS filed a tax lien against Erjavec for $14,258. In 2007, a $137,821 judgment was issued against him in Hennepin County. He has been sued for breach of contract and consumer fraud and for violating federal truth in lending laws. A trademark infringement suit against him from General Electric ended in a permanent injunction. The truth in lending case was settled and the breach of contract suit ended in Erjavec's favor.

Erjavec did not return telephone calls seeking a comment and did not respond to an e-mail inquiry about the fundraiser and his business dealings. However, he released a statement through a public relations firm without further explanation: "As the economy has had its challenges I continue to work through my own personal challenges. It's unfortunate that my personal support of the Senator has been used in a business dispute."

Erjavec's website describes him as an entrepreneur since his early teens, investing in real estate, distressed debt liquidation, a marketing firm, a publishing company and an office products company. He is listed as a founder, chairman or board member of five companies.

The website also has a link to Litigation Home, and says: "My companies from time to time experience or initiate an array of litigation. Sometimes we sue, and sometimes we are sued."

Staff writers David Phelps, Rochelle Olson and Rachel Stassen-Berger and news research director Sandy Date contributed to this story. Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636