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Gov. Tim Pawlenty hasn't declared himself a candidate for president, but he's already getting the kind of help a candidate needs.
Michael Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and legal advisor to former President George W. Bush, is lending Pawlenty expertise about the often intricate world of campaign finance.
The governor said Tuesday that Toner was volunteering time to help set up the Freedom First Political Action Committee. The committee will help Pawlenty raise money to finance his travel and expenses as he explores a possible bid for president.
"He's doing the legal work for the PAC," Pawlenty said, without elaborating, after appearing at a state government function. Toner, who is based in Washington, declined to comment for this story.
But those in the know say Toner has the tools to prevent Pawlenty from making missteps as he sets up a fundraising apparatus.
"He's very highly regarded, a very sharp and skilled political attorney," said Washington lawyer Paul Ryan, himself an expert on federal campaign finance. "He is as familiar with federal campaign finance laws as any other attorneys working in the field."
So how might Toner help Pawlenty?
"I suspect Michael Toner will be approving solicitation letters before they go out," said Ryan, who works for the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center. "He'll be reviewing them and making sure they comply with the requirements of federal law."
That means they'll reject contributions from corporations or labor unions, and require contributors who give more than $200 to disclose names, occupations, employers and other information. Contribution limits will be explicit.
But why would he volunteer now?
Ryan said Toner might want to "get in on the campaign at the ground floor, even though it's not an official campaign yet." He may realize that "perhaps Mr. Pawlenty doesn't have a ton of money to pay lawyers at this stage." Still, Toner may have decided to join the effort "with the hopes of being a paid general counsel down the road."
Toner was an FEC commissioner from 2002 to 2007, and chaired the agency in 2006. The commission enforces federal campaign finance regulations.
"When your job is to understand and enforce the law and you do it for several years, you end up knowing the law as well as anyone else," Ryan said.
Toner also has experience working on Republican presidential campaigns, having been general counsel of the Bush-Cheney 2000 presidential campaign in Austin, Texas, and counsel to the Dole-Kemp campaign in 1996.
He was chief counsel for the Republican National Committee, and has written widely on campaign finance issues.
Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210