A minor media frenzy (is that oxymoronic?) is developing around the question of whether businessman Nasser Kazeminy of Bloomington, Minn., and Palm Beach, Fla., a frequent Republican contributor, buys Sen. Norm Coleman’s clothes.
Ken Silverstein of Harper’s Magazine reported on Monday that two sources have told him that “Kazeminy has in the past covered the bills for Coleman’s lavish clothing purchases at Nieman Marcus in Minneapolis.”
When asked whether this is true, Coleman campaign spokesman Luke Friedrich and campaign manager Cullen Sheehan have responded to most inquiries on the matter with some version of this comment:
Friedrich: “As required, any gift Norm Coleman has received from his friends has been fully reported.”
Sheehan: “The senator has reported every gift he has ever received. We are not going to respond to unnamed sources on a blog.”
Cullen Sheehan, Norm Coleman’s campaign manager, responding to a reporter’s questions about whether a businessman and prominent GOP donor purchased clothes for Coleman.
I had heard this allegation before it became public and had asked Sheehan whether the senator had an arrangement with a businessman to pay for his clothes. He told me no, and I did not pursue the matter. But I now understand that to have been a technical, but not candid, answer. I know only a tiny bit more than has been reported, but my purpose here is to put the situation in some perspective and specify the small mysteries that have not been solved.
Coleman and his leading opponent, Democrat Al Franken, disagree and disagree diametrically on most important public policy questions facing the nation, from Iraq to taxes to the financial bailout to abortion, etc. Voters have an ample basis to decide between them on substantive issues, and I personally urge undecided voters to weigh their philosophical agreement or disagreement with the candidates more heavily than the question of who pays for the suits.
But the race has turned nasty and personal. Given how much hay the Coleman campaign and his allies have made of Franken’s personal business matters, it may seem utterly just to Franken supporters that any questions about Coleman’s finances be scrutinized.
Kazeminy has been a major Coleman financial supporter. During 2002, when Coleman first won election to the Senate, Kazeminy gave $67,000 the Coleman campaign and committees that supported Coleman for Senate in 2002, plus $50,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and $5,000 to the Minnesota Republican Party, and that was all just in 2002.
Kazeminy has a private plane and has given Coleman at least two expensive trips during his Senate term — in 2004, a trip for Coleman and his wife to Paris ($2,870 value) and in 2005 for Coleman and his daughter to the Bahamas ($3,960). The Senate rules permit such gifts, from long-term friends, but require disclosure. Coleman reported these as gifts on his Senate disclosure forms. He told the Star Tribune at the time that Kazeminy is a personal friend.
Coleman has not disclosed any gifts of clothing from Kazeminy. Silverstein’s sources say Kazeminy has given such gifts, but could not say whether they occurred before or since Coleman became a senator.
Let’s pause on that point for two thoughts: How knowledgeable could Silverstein’s sources be about the gifts if they don’t know the year in which they occurred? But also, if you are troubled by the idea of a businessman buying clothes for a senator, how much less troubling would it be if the gifts were made while Coleman was preparing to run or running for the Senate?
Journalists are always happier when they can hang a story on an explicit technical violation of a law or rule, such as the rule requiring senators to report gifts. But if the issue is the possibility that a wealthy businessman can buy influence with Coleman, who is not wealthy, by buying him clothes and providing him free flights on a private plane, then I guess the public might want to know about the gifts, even if they are not covered by Senate disclosure requirements.
On the other hand, I do wonder this: We know that Kazeminy, under the “friend” exception, has given Coleman trips worth $6,830. If he’s buying influence, how much worse does the situation become if he also buys the senator clothes?
I should note that, thus far, no one has reported any allegation that Coleman has used his official position to benefit Kazeminy. If a credible allegation along those lines arises, the matter will seem much more serious.
Other reporters may have been working on this much longer, but in August, I heard a tip that a wealthy local businessman had an arrangement with Coleman under which the senator could pick out whatever clothes he wanted and the businessman would pay the bill. Not wanting to be tricky, I directly asked Cullen Sheehan whether there had ever been any such arrangement.
He replied that Coleman had disclosed all gifts he was required to disclose.
I suggested that this non-denial denial seemed to lend credibility to the rumor. The question was not about the reporting requirements but about whether Coleman and the businessman had any such arrangement. On the second round, Sheehan repeated that all required disclosures had been made and added: “No, he has never had such an arrangement.”
I left the story there for several weeks, until the Harper’s piece ran. I called Sheehan back and asked if he was prepared to rebut the Harper’s piece, or whether he had been less than candid with me when he told me that Coleman “never had such an arrangement.” After a couple of rounds of Coleman-disclosed-everything-he-was-required-to-disclose, Sheehan told me that his no-such-arrangement answer to me had been based on the word “arrangement.” In other words, Sheehan was not denying that Coleman received clothes from Kazeminy, only that he never had an “arrangement,” such as the one I suggested by my question, under which Coleman could pick out whatever clothes he wanted and Kazeminy would pay the bills.
Sheehan never did say that Kazeminy has bought clothes for Coleman, but he might as well have. If Kazeminy had never bought clothes for Coleman, he could have laid the matter to rest any time, but instead he has given artful answers, not fully responsive to the questions.
In my own conversation with Sheehan, I told him frankly that anyone listening to his answers would infer that Coleman has received gifts of clothing from Kazeminy, apparently under some circumstance that Team Coleman asserts did not require disclosure, but for some reason is not willing to clearly state what happened. Sheehan said he couldn’t help what others might infer.
But actually, he could help that a lot by just confirming what he is all but acknowledging: That Kazeminy has given Coleman gifts of clothing but — fill in here the reason that they did not need to be disclosed. It’s a little hard to guess what Coleman gains by holding the line where they are currently holding it. Is the amount of the gift astonishingly large? Is their claim that it didn’t need to be disclosed shakier than their assertion? Was some embarrassing subterfuge used to create a technically non-discloseable situation?
Franken held to same standard?
In fairness and in closing, I bring up a complaint that I have heard from Coleman supporters that Coleman is held to a higher standard than Franken. I don’t know whether I subscribe to this, but I will convey what I found to be the most compelling evidence for the argument.
Franken, as you probably know, has admitted that he made a series of mistakes in his taxes over recent years and failed to pay state income taxes to 17 states in which he earned income during his days as an entertainer between 2003-07. He announced that he had not evaded any taxes but, on the advice of his tax accountant, had paid the taxes he owed to all of the states to New York and Minnesota, the states in which he lived during that period.
To clear the matter up, Franken said in April, he paid a total of $70,000 in back taxes and penalties to those states and would eventually seek offsetting refunds from the states to which he had paid too much.
The moral essence of his explanation was that he had made an honest mistake, had not sought to evade any taxes and had not in fact underpaid. Coleman and his allies have made hay out of this, seeking to portray Franken as a tax evader. Franken has cried foul, based on his claim of an honest mistake.
But here’s the rub: Franken declined to release any of his tax returns. The media and the public have had, essentially, to take his word for it that his tax problem was a harmless mistake. The complaint from Colemanites is that if Franken was held to the same standard as, for example, Coleman was when questions were raised about his alleged sweetheart deal on the apartment he rents from a political ally in Washington, the media would still be demanding to see Franken’s tax returns.