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Continued: FEC says donors can pay Coleman, Franken legal bills

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 24, 2009 - 12:06 PM

If you think Al Franken and Norm Coleman never agree about anything, you are mistaken.

When it comes to raising money to wage their U.S. Senate fight, the two long-running antagonists are in full accord, and last week they won a key decision that will make it easier for them to hit up well-heeled supporters to finance the contest.

Burning through cash to pay their platoons of high-priced legal talent, Franken and Coleman, through their allies, persuaded the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to clear the way for national party organizations to pay some of the millions of dollars in expenses for lawyers and other workers during the recount and trial.

The ruling, which backers for both candidates sought, will help them pay bills remaining from the seven-week trial as well as future expenses from a likely appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The decision, called an advisory opinion, gives them another chance to tap their most affluent and passionate supporters even if they already gave maximum contributions during the election year. For instance, a person who gave the maximum contribution of $30,400 to a national Democratic or Republican party organization this year can now give the same maximum to a party recount and trial fund for one of the candidates. The party organization can use the fund to help the candidate pay his expenses.

Similarly, a political committee could give another $15,000 to such a fund even if it gave the maximum amount during the campaign.

The legal battle has been extraordinarily expensive.

Although up-to-date figures are not available, the candidates are believed to have raised at least $11 million combined since the November election to pay for the recount and trial. That's about one-fourth of what they raised and spent during the entire 2007-08 election cycle.

A day of trial illustrates the pressing need for money.

Election law experts estimate that each of the six or more lawyers actively working on the case made about $500 an hour while in the courtroom.

"I would say that's on the low side for some of them," said University of Minnesota political science Prof. Lawrence Jacobs. "While the rest of us are watching the case go forward, the lawyers are looking at their watches. There's millions and millions of dollars in billable hours."

Both sides are likely to be paying most of their own legal bills, although state law says the contestant -- Coleman -- must pay court costs if he loses. Franken is less likely under the law to pay court costs if he loses. He also has asked the court to order Coleman, should he fail to overturn the recount, to pay some of the DFLer's costs and legal fees.

But Jacobs believes the three-judge panel would be reluctant to shift much of that burden onto Coleman.

"This is not a frivolous sort of enterprise," he said, referring to Coleman's court challenge, which is allowed under state election law. "I think the judges will be reasonable about this."

Proliferating funds

The FEC ruling came in response to a request by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and was supported by several national Republican party organizations. The decision would affect organizations from both parties.

The agency commissioners could not reach agreement on a request by Franken to set up a separate fundraising committee to pay for trial costs. Such a committee would have allowed him to raise another $2,400 from individuals even if he had previously raised the maximum allowable amount from them through separate recount and election committees.

Cynthia Bauerly, an FEC commissioner, said while Franken sought only one more fund, she worried that allowing it could encourage other candidates to establish even more fundraising committees to sidestep contribution limits.

"If you start parsing out every separate stage of this process with a separate fund, you could end up having 10 different funds and that would be a huge amount of money coming in," Bauerly said. "What if a contest results in another partial recount? Do you get another recount fund?"

The Republican organizations indicated they wanted even more free rein, suggesting removal of all limits on contributions to a national party organization.

"In my view that would have been a dramatic change from how the commission has been interpreting it for 30 years," Bauerly said.

A pair of nonpartisan campaign finance watchdogs, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, also objected to the change.

They said the reasoning "would permit candidates and party committees not only to raise million-dollar contributions from individuals, but also from corporations, labor unions and foreign nationals, all to pay for recount and election contest expenses."

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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