Depending on your point of view, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman is paying $600 a month to be squeezed into a 10-by-10 room in the basement of a house in Washington, D.C. Or, the Minnesota Republican is living in a lavish, garden-level apartment at a rate far below market value.
Either way, Coleman has an unusual relationship with his landlord — in this case, Jeff Larson, a Minnesotan who is a big, behind-the-scenes hitter with both Coleman and the national Republican Party. Coleman began renting the space last July. On two occasions, the senator forgot to pay his monthly rent. In another case, Coleman traded his old furniture for a month’s rent.
The relationship between renter and landlord “doesn’t just stink,” said DFL Party Chairman Brian Melendez this afternoon at a Capitol news conference he called to criticize Coleman. “It probably violates Senate ethics rules,” he said.
Late this afternoon, Coleman’s campaign did release a brief statement: “As the Senator indicated to the National Journal and further articulated last Friday, he is paying fair market value for his cramped bedroom in a basement of a home in Washington, D.C. As our research shows, this rent is comparable to other rent in the area.”
Still unknown is whether the senator pays for utilities and how much of the remainder of the home he uses.
Details of housing arrangement surfaced last week
The story of Coleman’s D.C. living arrangements and his relationship with Larson surfaced last week in a lengthy article in the National Journal.
In that article, both Larson and Coleman strongly denied any wrongdoing. Larson said he was surprised the senator was able to squeeze a bed into the little room, which also includes a bath.
Coleman, who, according to public records, is not wealthy, told the National Journal he moved into the sleeping room “to dramatically reduce my living expenses.” Before moving into Larson’s basement room/garden space, he was paying $1,780 a month for a more-traditional apartment with swimming pool and security.
But on Monday afternoon, the DFL was only too happy to pounce on the article, which Melendez said may be “only the tip of the iceberg” of Coleman’s relationships with corporate interests.
“I have said that Norm Coleman is in bed with special interests,” said Melendez. “But now we know that he literally sleeps under the same roof that they do.”
But Melendez said the DFL has not decided yet if it will call for the Senate Ethics Committee to look at the arrangement.
Larson-Coleman relationship dates to 1996
Begin with Coleman’s relationship with Larson, who was a key player in persuading the Republican Party to bring its national convention to St. Paul this year. That relationship with Coleman dates to 1996, when Coleman, then mayor of St. Paul, switched parties and became a Republican. Larson helped Coleman win re-election.
In 1999, Larson, along with Tony Feather and Tom Synhorst formed FLS Connect, which has become a huge player in Coleman’s political life and does millions in business with the Republican Party. Essentially, FLS is a telemarketing company. It has been paid about $1.6 million by Coleman’s Northstar Leadership political action committee. Larson is treasurer of the PACT. FLS continues to be paid by Coleman’s Senate campaign committee.
The relationship does not end there. Larson’s spouse, Dorene Kainz, has been paid $100,000 as a member of Coleman’s Senate staff. (She has used her maiden name while on Coleman’s staff, and other business transactions show she frequently uses her maiden name.)
Before publication of the National journal article, Kainz announced that she will be leaving the senator’s staff in order to spend more time with her family.
One more thing: Feather and Synhorst spun off a lobbying company from FLS. The new firm, DCI, has made substantial contributions to the Coleman campaign and has become a political hot potato because one of its clients is the repressive government of Myanmar.
So what does all of this have to do with where Coleman sleeps?
In the big picture, Melendez says, the rental deal is a microcosm of how “cozy” Coleman’s relationship is with people who lobby on behalf of major corporations.
DFL’s Melendez raises ethics issue
At its simplest, Melendez says, the “sweetheart” rental arrangement may be in violation of Senate ethics rules that place strict caps on the value of a gift a senator can receive. Under Senate rules, a senator can receive a gift from a friend of no more than $250 in the course of a year. This limit includes such things as housing.
So the subjective question becomes this: Is Coleman paying fair market value for his living space.
Understand, there are $600-a-month rooms to be rented in D.C., though frequently those would include cockroaches and rats.
Coleman told the Journal that he had consulted colleagues in Congress who rent rooms and they said they paid “600 bucks.”
Again, Larson and Coleman insist this is a “basement bedroom” with merely a bathroom and a refrigerator.
But on Monday, the DFL was handing out the description of the home used by the Realtor before the Capitol Hill District home was purchased by Larson and his spouse for $989,900 in March 2007.
“Downstairs, a huge English basement with a media center, office space, gorgeous custom marble and oak bar plus an airy guest bedroom and bath,” is how the basement is described.
DFL researchers said their research of the neighborhood showed that the market rate would be $1,100 to $1,500 for an efficiency unit or one-bedroom basement unit in that same neighborhood.
What isn’t clear is how much Coleman uses the rest of the basement, or the upper floors of the home, which Larson said is used by FLS employees when they’re doing work in Washington.
Coleman told the National Journal that he takes “full responsibility” for not paying two months’ rent. He said that after the National Journal reporters asked questions about the situation, his spouse, Laurie, wrote a check to cover the unpaid rent. He also said that he’s still able to use the furniture – a couch, table, chairs and a desk – that he gave to Larson in exchange for a month’s rent.
If nothing else, all of this would seem to indicate that DFL researchers will be at least as busy as Republican researchers have been in checking the background of Coleman’s opponent, Al Franken.
“We’ve just begun,” said Melendez.
Which is what Republicans have been saying, too.