Washington Babylon — October 15, 2008, 2:29 pm

Norm Coleman’s Denial and “Transparency”

I published a story last week that discussed Senator Norm Coleman’s cozy relationship with several of his campaign donors. Coleman’s office declined repeated requests for comment, but I said I would update the story if he ever offered a reply. He finally did–at a press conference last Friday. (I’ve been traveling for much of the past week and also re-interviewing my sources, or I would have noted this already.)

I had reported that Coleman’s wife, Laurie, was employed by The Hays Companies, a risk management and commercial insurance firm whose executives, spouses and employees had donated generously to Coleman between 2002 and 2006. I’d also reported that two sources had told me that Minnesota businessman Nasser Kazeminy (who previously paid for Coleman’s travel to the Bahamas and to Paris) had in the past covered the bills for Coleman’s lavish clothing purchases at Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis.

Last Friday, four days after my piece had run and nearly two weeks after I had first contacted Coleman’s office to ask for comment, the senator replied. He said that throughout his public career he had tried to be as “transparent and forthcoming” as possible. His wife’s job, he said:

“has been disclosed as required under the ethics laws of the United States Senate. My wife is a certified and licensed insurance agent–she works for a living–and her employer is pleased with her work–and she is pleased with her job. And that’s all anybody is entitled to know.”

Coleman also denied that Kazeminy had ever bought him clothing, saying that he had initially refused comment to me because he believed that responding “to a baseless unsubstantiated claim that appears on a blog” would “make a story out of a non-story.”

First off, I’ll state the obvious: I would have handled the Kazeminy part of the story differently if Coleman’s office had denied the story. I had two sources that offered consistent accounts, and since publishing the story I have been contacted by a third source who backed the original ones. But the sources, even if they had good reasons for their posture, wouldn’t go on the record.

If Coleman had denied the accounts to me–and I spent a week trying to get him to offer comment–I would have talked the situation over again with my editor. I had (and have) confidence in what the sources told me but at minimum we would have featured Coleman’s denial very prominently in the story.

Instead, Coleman declined comment (because I was a “blogger,” he now says). Then his campaign manager subsequently declined to provide a specific response to questions about the matter at what the Washington Post called “the most awkward press conference in the history of politics.”

I would note here that Coleman has not always been “forthcoming” about the close relationship he maintains with some donors. As I noted in the original story, National Journal has reported that Coleman was renting a “crash pad” on Capitol Hill at what appears to be below market rate. The apartment is owned by a G.O.P. operative named Jeff Larson, the treasurer of Coleman’s personal Political Action Committee (PAC). Then it turned out that Coleman had somehow forgotten to pay two months of rent, and that Larson had not cashed one of his rent checks.

Larson’s firm had been paid more than $1 million by Coleman’s PAC and campaign. And Larson’s wife worked for Coleman’s office in St. Paul (under her maiden name), being paid more than $100,000 over two years. When this was reported, Coleman defended the arrangement, saying that Larson’s wife was one of his best employees, and that Larson’s telemarketing business had provided “great services” to the senator. That’s roughly the same explanation he’s offering now for his wife’s employment at the Hayes Companies. Meanwhile, he’s disclosed the bare minimum necessary about Laurie Coleman’s hiring by a campaign donor, saying the public is “not entitled” to know anymore more.

Maybe Coleman thinks there’s no problem with any of this, but frankly his claiming that he has been “transparent” in his dealings with the public seems like a stretch.

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