A government watchdog group in Washington today called on the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate whether Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., violated Senate gift rules in renting an apartment on Capitol Hill from Republican strategist and telemarketer Jeff Larson.
In its complaint, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, cited a June 28 National Journal story that revealed Coleman pays Larson only $600 a month in rent for what the senator described as a portion of a basement apartment four blocks from the Capitol.
CREW said that Senate ethics rules generally prohibit members from accepting gifts and asked the ethics panel to explore whether Coleman is paying "fair market value,'' as he contends, for the living space. Democrats in Minnesota and Washington have alleged that the rent is well below market value for similar living quarters on Capitol Hill.
The story detailed how rent was not paid to Larson for two months, how a third check was held by Larson for three months and cashed after National Journal's inquiries, and how Coleman paid for another month's rent by selling furniture to Larson. After National Journal questioned him last month, Coleman covered two months' back rent with a personal check for $1,200 made out to Larson and signed by the senator's wife.
The story also revealed that Larson's wife, Dorene, was on Coleman's Senate payroll as a "casework supervisor" under her maiden name, Kainz. She is leaving the staff on July 10.
Coleman is running for a second term against Democrat Al Franken, a former writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live." The senator's campaign dismissed the complaint as "a politically motivated attack" and the work of Franken's allies.
Larson is an influential Republican operative and longtime friend of Coleman's. He is a major figure in the senator's political operation and appears to have profited handsomely from their relationship. Since mid-2001, Coleman's Northstar Leadership political action committee and his Senate campaigns have paid about $1.6 million to FLS Connect, a St. Paul-based political telemarketing firm owned by Larson and three partners.
Larson and his wife don't live in Washington but bought a townhouse on Capitol Hill in March 2007. In a statement issued to National Journal, Coleman said that in July last year he moved into the basement apartment of the townhouse. He said he had "a 10-by-10-foot bedroom, bathroom, no kitchen or cooking facilities and living space that I share with an office," meaning FLS Connect.
In its complaint, CREW urged the ethics panel to explore whether Coleman would have made up two months' back rent of $1,200 had the magazine not raised that issue, and whether Coleman and Larson had agreed that Larson would hold on to another month's rent.
"Few Americans have landlords who sometimes fail to cash their rent checks, ignore unpaid rent or accept furniture in lieu of rent,'' said Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director. "That Senator Coleman has just such a landlord who also happens to financially benefit from his relationship with the senator creates exactly the sort of appearance of impropriety that undermines the public's faith in government.''
Luke Friedrich, a spokesman for Coleman's Senate campaign, described Sloan in a statement as "Al Franken's surrogate." He said she was "a featured guest who made at least 50 appearances on Al Franken's radio show" and was "a reliable attack dog for the Democratic Party."
CREW pointed out that it had filed ethics complaints against three Democratic senators this year. One complaint was filed just last month, the group said.