A Washington-based government watchdog group is asking the Senate ethics committee to investigate whether Sen. Norm Coleman violated gift rules by renting an apartment owned by a longtime Republican associate.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) wants the committee to determine whether Coleman, R-Minn., is paying the fair market value for the Capitol Hill-area apartment, and what was behind the apparently loose rental agreement the senator had with St. Paul telemarketer Jeff Larson.

DFL Party officials, who hope to quash Coleman's bid for a second term this year, said Monday they believed Coleman had violated Senate ethics rules in paying Larson $600 a month for a garden-level bedroom-and-bath in a three-story rowhouse. DFLers said that's half of what most renters in the area would pay for comparable apartments, while Coleman says it is fair payment for his cramped quarters.

The National Journal also reported that Coleman had missed two monthly payments since taking the apartment last summer, and that he had swapped some old furniture for another month's rent.

Larson runs FLS Connect, a St. Paul telemarketing firm that has done more than $1.5 million worth of business with Coleman's political action committee and campaigns. He is CEO of the local host committee for next month's Republican National Convention and was instrumental in bringing the convention to the Twin Cities.

Senate rules strictly prohibit most gifts and make clear that discounts for lodging may constitute a gift.

CREW attacked

Officials with the Coleman campaign and the Republican Party responded Tuesday by characterizing CREW as a "front group" for DFL Senate candidate Al Franken and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

They pointed out that Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, was the weekly ethics expert on Franken's Air America radio show and that she worked as counsel for Schumer when he was in the House. State GOP Party Chair Ron Carey said that one CREW board member has contributed to the Franken campaign and another to the DSCC.

Sloan said Tuesday that CREW is nonpartisan and that Coleman is the first Republican senator it has sought to have investigated this year. The first three -- Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Kent Conrad of North Dakota -- are all Democrats, she said.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455