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Coleman calls lawsuit sleazy

Staff photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL - The October surprise came with not a day to spare.

On the final day of the month known for election-year bombshells, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman Friday staunchly refuted a lawsuit alleging that a wealthy supporter funneled money to the senator through his wife's employer.

Coleman called it "a false and malicious political attack."

Entering the final weekend of a nasty Senate battle, Coleman accused challenger Al Franken's Democratic allies of engaging in a "sleazy" smear campaign. The Republican senator suggested during a Moorhead campaign stop that Democrats were behind the Texas civil lawsuit and they want to influence the outcome of Tuesday's election.

"Each and every allegation in this lawsuit relating to me and my wife is false and defamatory," Coleman said.

Franken's campaign said it was not aware of the suit until it heard Coleman dodged reporters' questions about it Thursday.

Neither major candidate will emerge from the late-campaign issue having gained support, a political scientist predicted.

"I don't think it's going to benefit either Coleman or Franken because it just looks like they're engaged in more dirty politics," said Paula O'Loughlin, University of Minnesota Morris professor.

"The person who's going to benefit is Dean Barkley because he doesn't have that kind of mud on him," she said.

Barkley is the Independence Party candidate whose support in most polls is in the low double-digit range while Franken and Coleman are far ahead and nearly tied.

Despite Coleman's strong remarks, he doesn't come out ahead because he has to respond to the lawsuit when he otherwise would be talking about other issues, O'Loughlin said. But it probably will not dramatically alter the election outcome, she added.

"I think that it could hurt Coleman with some people, but it could just as easily hurt Franken's campaign," O'Loughlin said.

The lawsuit claims Coleman's friend, businessman Nasser Kazeminy of Minnesota, directed a Texas marine firm, of which Kazeminy was a controlling shareholder, to make $75,000 in payments from corporate funds to a Minneapolis insurance company employing the senator's wife. The suit says it was an attempt to boost Coleman's personal finances.

Laurie Coleman is an insurance agent with Hays Companies, which the lawsuit indicates received three $25,000 payments from Deep Marine Technology last year. A fourth $25,000 payment apparently was blocked by Paul McKim, the marine firm executive behind the suit.

In a statement, Hays Companies rejected claims made in the lawsuit and said Laurie Coleman received no compensation related to consulting services it provided Deep Marine Technology.

"We are pleased with her work, and we find any allegations that she accepted money for work she was not responsible for to be outrageous and contemptible," the company said.

Deep Marine spokeswoman Tracie Ross said the company is investigating the allegations but has not found any evidence of wrongdoing. The company wouldn't comment further.

The suit, filed in Texas' Harris County, claims Kazeminy ordered Deep Marine executives to pay corporate funds to Hays "for the stated purpose of trying to financially assist" Coleman. The suit claims Kazeminy told company officials he wanted to get money to Coleman because "U.S. senators don't make (expletive deleted)."

Coleman questioned the timing of the suit. It originally was filed Monday, then withdrawn. Then, Coleman said, it was re-filed after his campaign Thursday submitted a campaign advertising complaint against Franken.

"This is a lawsuit brought by the CEO of a Texas company alleging serious wrongdoing on the part of one of Norm Coleman's biggest donors to financially benefit Coleman," Franken spokeswoman Colleen Murray said. "Norm Coleman can try to deflect attention, but the fact remains: These are serious sworn allegations, and he needs to answer questions about them before the election."

It was just the type of late-breaking twist to the campaign that political observers have learned to expect in the close of a hotly contested race.

Two years ago Gov. Tim Pawlenty won re-election amid late-campaign outbursts by his Democratic opponent, then-Attorney General Mike Hatch.

The 2002 Senate race was upended with the late-October death of Sen. Paul Wellstone in an airplane crash. Coleman went on to defeat former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Coleman's brief Moorhead news conference Friday was held to refute the lawsuit. Questioned by reporters whether there was any truth to the claims, Coleman repeated that they were false and defamatory.

Asked if he would sue in return, Coleman said he was focused on winning the election and not litigation.

Kazeminy, a friend of Coleman's for years, was at the center of earlier media reports that citied anonymous sources claiming the Minnesota businessman had paid for expensive Neiman Marcus clothing for Coleman. The senator said that was false.

Coleman's Senate financial disclosure records show Kazeminy paid for more than $6,000 in travel for Coleman and his wife and daughter on a private plane in recent years.