Draft opinions out on Coleman bills

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 18, 2009 - 9:57 PM

The FEC is considering whether to let him use campaign funds to pay legal fees related to a supporter's lawsuits.

WASHINGTON - Federal election officials released two written drafts Thursday setting forth the reasons they might let Norm Coleman use campaign cash for legal bills stemming from a swirl of ethics and legal allegations that a supporter tried to maneuver money to the former senator.

No decision has been made by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which will consider the case next week.

But the two drafts, released for public comment Thursday, suggest the agency is considering advisory opinions that could grant much of what the Minnesota Republican has requested.

Coleman, who is awaiting the state Supreme Court's decision in his Senate recount challenge against DFLer Al Franken, asked the FEC to use campaign funds to respond to a pair of lawsuits and ethics complaints surrounding claims that financier Nasser Kazeminy funneled at least $75,000 through an insurance agency that employed Coleman's wife.

Coleman is not a party to the suits and has denied any wrongdoing.

Drafts A and B

The draft advisory opinions, signed by FEC Chairman Steven Walther, conclude Coleman may use campaign funds for some, but not all, of the legal fees he might incur. Labeled "Draft A" and "Draft B," the documents differ only in the types of expenses Coleman can cover with campaign funds, which are generally not permitted for personal use.

Draft A would let him tap cash from his Senate campaign to pay his lawyers to review a pair of Senate ethics committee complaints, including one by the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a liberal group that has also sought an FBI investigation of the allegations involving Kazeminy.

Under this draft, however, Coleman could not use campaign money in any FBI investigation of allegations unrelated to his duties as a senator. He also could not use the funds to represent himself in the Kazeminy lawsuits, though he could use the funds to pay for half of the legal fees for monitoring the suits.

Under a more permissive Draft B, Coleman would be allowed to use campaign cash to represent himself in the lawsuits as well, and for all costs associated with monitoring them.

Both drafts allow him to expense the legal costs of responding to media inquiries, under the theory that he has received heightened interest because of his public office.

Tom Erickson, a Coleman campaign spokesman, said he will reserve comment until the FEC renders a final decision.

Not unprecedented

An FEC spokeswoman said that while the commission does not frequently publish two separate draft advisory opinions, "it is not unprecedented."

The critical difference in the two drafts centers on Coleman's role in the Kazeminy lawsuits, one filed in Texas, the other in Delaware. Both drafts note that the allegations allege corporate malfeasance involving companies connected to Kazeminy. There are no allegations that money was paid to Coleman, or that he knew about the alleged scheme.

Draft A notes that Coleman's need for representation in the two suits stems largely from his role as a potential witness, irrespective of his duties as a candidate and a senator. Accordingly, using campaign funds in that case would constitute "an impermissible personal use."

In contrast, Draft B says the allegations in the suits "are directly related" to Coleman's campaign and Senate duties, in part because Kazeminy is a Coleman political backer who allegedly wanted to help him financially.

It is unclear which, if either, draft will be adopted by the six FEC commissioners. They could also delay action on the case.

Coleman's attorney, Ben Ginsberg, requested an FEC decision in an April 3 letter, saying Coleman was targeted in the two suits just before the 2008 election "because of his position as a senator and candidate."

The request to use campaign cash was opposed then by the Minnesota DFL, which said campaign donors "believed they were donating to his campaign, not to help defend him from his personal legal problems."

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753

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