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Exec says Coleman donor ordered $100K payments

  • Article by: PAUL McENROE and TONY KENNEDY
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • March 26, 2009 - 11:51 PM

The former finance chief of a Texas company controlled by Nasser Kazeminy, a close friend of former Sen. Norm Coleman, said in a deposition last week that Kazeminy ordered $100,000 in fees be paid to a Minneapolis insurance agency where Coleman's wife was employed.

B.J. Thomas, who was chief financial officer of Deep Marine Technology Inc., said that $75,000 of that sum was paid to Hays Companies even though he saw no evidence of Deep Marine receiving any consulting services from Hays.

Thomas' deposition, taken under oath on March 19 and obtained by the Star Tribune, is the first corroboration from an official at Deep Marine of allegations made by company founder Paul McKim in a lawsuit filed last year against the company.

In the two weeks before the November U.S. Senate election, two lawsuits were filed against Deep Marine -- one by McKim and one by a group of minority shareholders. In them, Kazeminy was accused of funneling payments to Hays to benefit the Colemans, as well as other alleged financial wrongdoing.

Thomas gave his deposition last week to attorneys assigned by Deep Marine to investigate McKim's allegations. K.B. Battaglini, an attorney in charge of Deep Marine's private investigation, said he would submit a final report to the company in about a month.

Last November, Kazeminy vehemently denied the lawsuit's allegations as false and baseless. His spokeswoman in Minneapolis said Thursday he had nothing new to add.

Doug Kelley, Norm Coleman's attorney, said Wednesday that no matter how much money Deep Marine paid to Hays, "I can assure you that not a penny found its way to Laurie Coleman or Senator Norm Coleman. Period. End of story.''

Hays' attorney, Doug Peterson, said he hadn't seen the transcript of Thomas' deposition and couldn't comment. Hays hasn't disputed that it received $75,000 under a consulting contract with Deep Marine. But the company has previously insisted none of the money went to the Colemans.

When the allegations first surfaced, Coleman denied that he or his wife ever received money. He said the reports were an attack against his family engineered by his opponent, Al Franken. Franken has denied that.

The Senate gift ban prohibits senators from accepting from personal friends any gift valued at more than $250. Coleman's most recent Senate financial disclosure form, filed last year, does not list any gifts. The form discloses that Laurie Coleman gets a salary from Hays Companies, but Senate rules do not require the salary amount to be revealed.

In December, sources said the FBI opened an investigation into allegations in the two lawsuits. As in the past, FBI spokesman E.K. Wilson said Thursday he could neither confirm nor deny whether an investigation is in progress.

In the deposition, Thomas recounted a March 2007 telephone conversation in which Kazeminy purportedly lamented the amount of money Coleman was paid as a senator.

According to the transcript, Thomas was asked, "In that conversation that you had with Mr. Kazeminy, did he tell you, quote, United States senators don't make shit, close quote? Or words to that effect?"

Thomas answered: "Yes, sir.''

Thomas testified in the deposition for the company's internal investigation that Kazeminy told him that he wanted to use Laurie Coleman at Hays in relation to the consulting services agreement. Laurie Coleman, who is not a party to either suit against Deep Marine, was hired by Hays as an independent contractor in 2006. The insurance company has said she received no compensation under its contract with Deep Marine for risk management consulting.

Kazeminy is a wealthy Iranian-born businessman whose friendship with Coleman dates to when the former senator was mayor of St. Paul. Kazeminy has been a major contributor to Coleman's campaigns and to the Republican Party. His flagship company, NJK Holdings, is based in Bloomington, but he resides in Palm Beach, Fla.

Thomas, who was corporate secretary and CFO at Deep Marine from January 2002 to December 2007, said Kazeminy dominated decision-making at the company by virtue of stock holdings in the underwater services company geared to the offshore oil and gas industry.

"Nasser ran things," Thomas testified. "There was not much question that final decisions and things were made by Mr. Kazeminy."

Thomas, a former conservative radio talk show host and a certified public accountant, recalls in the deposition that he met several times over dinner in Houston with a Hays representative, Mike Prinz, to discuss what Hays could offer Deep Marine. Thomas said he couldn't recall Prinz telling him what Deep Marine would gain by switching to Hays.

"We talked about pinot noir wines from Oregon. And we talked about various other things. And we talked about insurance,'' Thomas testified.

Thomas said in the deposition that he sent an e-mail to Kazeminy, recommending that Deep Marine not switch its insurance coverage over to Hays because it would not be cheaper than the company that was already providing risk management services. Thomas said he never heard back from Kazeminy.

Thomas added that McKim "grumbled'' whenever he saw an invoice for consulting from Hays. "Paul was very unhappy about making the payments,'' he said.

pmcenroe@startribune.com • 612-673-1745 tonyk@startribune.com • 612-673-4213

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