Franken tries to sidestep courts

He asks Pawlenty, Ritchie to certify him as winner, but citing state law, they decline.

Al Franken topped off a day of aggressive maneuvers in the continuing U.S. Senate recount battle Monday by asking Gov. Tim Pawlenty to declare him the winner and telling Minnesota courts that they should butt out of the race.

A Franken campaign brief, filed in district court, argues that state courts lack jurisdiction to hear the "election contest" filed by Republican Norm Coleman and that if they hear the case, they cannot consider election irregularities and errors but must turn those matters over to the U.S. Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. Coleman, struggling to gain ground since the recount ended last week with a 225-vote lead for Franken, maintains that an intricate web of double-counting, missing ballots and other irregularities cost him the lead. The squabble has left Minnesota with only one U.S. senator at a time when a Democratic president is set to push ahead an agenda with massive federal aid for beleaguered states, including Minnesota. In a letter Monday to Pawlenty, a Republican, and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer, the Franken campaign said they should sign an election certificate, which would allow Franken to be seated in the Senate. Franken recount attorney Marc Elias cited federal law that he believes entitles Franken to the certificate before Coleman's challenge is settled. Pawlenty issued a statement saying: "I have a duty to follow state law and our statutes are clear on this issue. I am prohibited from issuing a certificate of election until the election contest in the courts has been resolved." Ritchie echoed that sentiment, saying that state law was so clear that even if Pawlenty issued a certificate before the election contest was decided, "I will not sign it."

Dismissal of suit sought

Later Monday, the Franken campaign filed a memorandum in Ramsey County District Court seeking to dismiss Coleman's motion for an election contest, as his suit challenging the recount is called. Elias said Coleman had failed to provide enough facts to support his claims of election irregularities. The Franken brief described Coleman's motion as "an imprecise and scattershot pleading." Should a three-judge panel hear the contest, Elias said, its authority would be limited to determine who should be awarded the already certified ballots and to a mathematical recount that ensured the accuracy of the state Canvassing Board's tally. Coleman's case rests not only on the ballots already certified, but also ones that might have been improperly rejected or which did not survive a challenge.

"They [Coleman attorneys] make sweeping claims without any detail," Elias said.

Should Coleman proceed, he said, the Franken campaign will ask that more than 800 disputed votes be added to the recount, including those for whom Elias says the campaign has affadavits.

Mark Drake, a spokesman for Coleman, said the Franken campaign was attempting to freeze the scoreboard in its favor.

"This is just further evidence that the Franken campaign is more concerned about rushing an invalid result through, rather than making sure this process is done right," Drake said.

Federal elections complaint

The state DFL Party opened a second front on Coleman on Monday afternoon, filing a Federal Election Commission complaint that alleged violations of federal campaign finance law. The complaint said a group called the Republican National Lawyers Association had raised money for the Coleman recount, even setting up a Web page that says "Yes, I want to help the Republican National Lawyers Association stop Al Franken from stealing this election." Individuals and corporations were urged to contribute up to $5,000 in return for a subscription to Newsmax magazine, which bills itself as a conservative voice. On Monday, DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez said federal campaign law prohibited both corporate donations and contributions over $2,300 per individual. He said the DFL lacked hard evidence that the group had given money to Coleman, but said that either it had funneled donations to him or it had "defrauded" donors who believed they were helping to finance the recount efforts. Coleman recount attorney Fritz Knaak said he was unaware of the group and was not connected to the recount fundraising efforts.

Franken, meanwhile, is scheduled to head to Washington a few days early for the inauguration of Barack Obama so he can host a $1,000-a-plate Sunday brunch at the Willard Hotel in Washington. The event, a fundraiser for the Franken Recount Fund, promises special appearances by Grateful Dead legends Bob Weir and Mickey Hart. In a letter to supporters, Franken asked for help to "protect what we've won."

As a joint committee of the Franken campaign and the Minnesota DFL, the Franken Recount Fund is soliciting contributions as high as $12,300, more than double the normal limit for federal campaign contributions. 

A Franken spokeswoman said that the Recount Fund is allowed to solicit the higher amounts as a joint committee reporting to the FEC. In court papers, the Democrats argue that because the lawyers' group is an independent organization that accepts corporate contributions in excess of regular campaign limits, it may not give money to Coleman's recount effort.

The Franken campaign also said Monday that it was "encouraging" a lawsuit that is expected to be filed today on behalf of approximately 65 absentee voters whose ballots were improperly rejected.

Judicial panel set

As the conflict escalated, Supreme Court Justice Alan Page named the three-judge panel that will hear the contest set to begin late this month or early next month. Page selected a panel of veteran district judges who were appointed by governors from all three of Minnesota's major parties. Judge Denise Reilly, of Hennepin County, has been on the bench since 1997, when she was appointed by Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. Judge Elizabeth Hayden, of Stearns County, was named by DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich in 1986. Judge Kurt Marben, of Pennington County, was an appointee of Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura in 2000.

Staff writer Kevin Diaz contributed to this report.

plopez@startribune.com • 651-222-1288 mkaszuba@startribune.com • 651-222-1673

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    Education: B.A., College of Wooster (Ohio); J.D., William Mitchell College of Law.

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