Not that it hasn’t been totally entertaining so far, but the Norm Coleman-Al Franken recount saga turned deliciously theatrical this morning.
Dare we say circus-like?
It happened about 11:30 a.m., when out of Room 210 of the marbled Minnesota Judicial Center, after an hour-long in-chambers meeting to discuss the scheduling of the “election contest” trial, emerged a dapper fireplug of a 71-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native.
“And you are Joe Friedberg?” a journalist asked.
“Still,” he said, without missing beat.
Yes, it was none other than famed and high-priced Joe Friedberg, perhaps the Twin Cities’ most plain-spoken and good-humored criminal defense lawyer.
Friedberg, Coleman are old friends
But he is an old friend and former colleague of Norm Coleman’s – they worked together at the Minneapolis law firm of Winthrop and Weinstine years ago – and, Friedberg said, Coleman asked him for this favor.
“He called me,” Friedberg said. “He’s obviously at a very important place in his life. He asked me if I would help. He’s a friend. What am I going to do — say no?”
It is a favor mined with dangerous connections and that instantly must have had Franken campaign operatives giggling with disbelief and rubbing their hands with visions of the chatter sure to echo through the blogosphere. The chatter began instantly.
Friedberg is such an old friend of Coleman’s that he also represents Nasser Kazeminy, Coleman’s alleged benefactor who, with Coleman, is reportedly a target of a federal investigation.
And Friedberg once represented Coleman’s father on a disorderly conduct charge. The senior Coleman has since passed away.
When asked if it’s embarrassing to have Friedberg on the recount case in light of his representation of Kazeminy, Coleman’s campaign communications director Mark Drake told MinnPost in an email:
“Joe Friedberg has joined our legal team as we enter the trial phase of this contest, because party affiliation aside, what’s critically important here is protecting the credibility of the process. Serious errors were made throughout the recount process and the integrity of Minnesota’s election system, and the rights of each and every voter, are at stake … Every vote should count, and count equally, and Joe Friedberg will help our team continue to fight for the people of Minnesota who are being hurt because of this rush by the Franken Campaign to stop people’s votes from being counted in an effort to be put in a Senate seat he did not win.”
Asked again about the Kazeminy-Coleman-Friedberg triangle, Drake declined comment.
Franken spokesman Andy Barr declined comment on Friedberg’s hiring.
As expected, the chatter began instantly.
Game on officially
But all these links aside, let us declare the election contest trial game to be officially on.
While no order has been issued yet today, it appears as if the three-judge panel of Judges Elizabeth Hayden, Kurt Marben and Denise Reilly is poised to allow cameras of all kinds into the trial so the world can watch live.
Ratings could soar.
Friedberg said he generally has opposed cameras in the courtroom – “given the proclivity of lawyers to perform. I think that the public interest in this particular case may cause all of us to come to a different conclusion.”
Friedberg is blunt, in charge, out of central casting from a “Law and Order” episode. The feisty, smart, funny defense dude with something surely up his fine wool sleeves.
Today, he comfortably stepped into his new role as legal spokesman for the Coleman litigation team. Off to the side stood Coleman’s other lawyers, Fritz Knaak and Tony Trimble, who will now take a back seat to Friedberg, who has, in his career, tried, according to published reports, more than 300 cases.
But he recalled today only one had as short a timeline for preparation as this one, which is now set to begin on Jan. 26 with a pre-trial hearing set for Wednesday.
That short-prep trial was also in Ramsey County District Court, where the election contest battle will be waged.
“Did you win that one?” Friedberg was asked.
“Certainly,” he replied. “I wouldn’t have brought it up.”
By the way, when did he become a part of the Coleman legal team?
He raised his arm to look at his wrist.
“You can look at your watch,” Friedberg said.
For the Franken side, the more regal David Lillehaug, the former U.S. attorney with a great head of white hair, quietly walked minutes later from that same Room 210. He was less chatty and answered only minor details.
But Lillehaug said during the in-chambers session with the judges that he struck the key Franken theme: “This is a proceeding that’s very important that it move expeditiously and fairly. Minnesota has an empty seat in the United States Senate. And the judges did comment that they thought this should be handled expeditiously.”
Asked about Coleman making Friedberg his lead guy, Lillehaug said, “Oh?” seemingly truly surprised – although it was hard to tell. “Did he characterize himself as the lead attorney? … I’ve known Mr. Friedberg for many years and have great respect for him.”
As for who’s going to be Franken’s Perry Mason, Lillehaug said, “We’ll have more to say on that.”
The friendship link must explain Friedberg’s leap from his usual criminal defense work to this civil election matter.
He’s recently represented one of the co-defendants in the Tom Petters fraud case.
He has done civil work, of course, including working on settlements in the controversial Dalkon Shield case, the birth control device that caused thousands of injuries to women.
Other high-profile clients: Russell Lund, Jr., the grocery store mogul who was accused of killing his ex-wife; Pat Forciea, the former Democratic Party operative and sports marketing whiz, who was convicted of fraud.
“There’s nothing complicated about me or what I do,” he told the Star Tribune back in 1992. “I don’t have causes, just clients.”
In the end, Friedberg was asked the difference between an election contest trial and his typical criminal trial.
“Well, nobody goes to jail at the end of it,” he said.
Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.