ST. PAUL -- Some of the state's top Republicans, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty, rushed to the defense of GOP Chairman Ron Eibensteiner on Friday, a day after his attorney revealed that a Mower County grand jury has indicted him on four gross misdemeanor election law violations.
"The legal process is going to have to sort that out," Pawlenty said. "In the end I don't think that the chairman will have been shown to have done anything improper."
The charges grow from a 2002 campaign contribution from Florida's American Bankers Insurance Company -- which faced steep state fines at the time -- to the Republican National State Election Committee, an affiliate of the Republican National Committee.
In May, the legislative auditor determined that the money was part of a "political strategy" by the company to get either Pawlenty or DFL nominee Roger Moe elected. The company saw the men as more favorable to its interests than Independence Party candidate Tim Penny.
The checks were routed through national groups, the report found.
But under state law, a corporation can't contribute money to promote or defeat a candidate for political office. It's also illegal for an individual to aid, abet or advise such a contribution.
In this case, Eibensteiner apparently became a focus of the grand jury because he wrote a letter, on his own stationery, thanking a lobbyist for the company for a $10,000 contribution to the national committee. Another $5,000 was contributed later.
In the letter, Eibensteiner wrote "the pressure has been put on us to raise enough money to make sure our major candidates, Norm Coleman to replace Paul Wellstone, Tim Pawlenty for Governor and John Kline to replace Bill Luther (in the new 2nd District), can win."
He continued: "Our overall budget for this year requires us to raise $7.3 million, a daunting goal. Of that amount, $1.5 million has been earmarked for a media buy to promote Tim Pawlenty for governor," adding that "we are pleased that your contribution will help us accomplish our budget goal."
Hamline University professor David Schultz is an expert in campaign finance laws. He said those words, appearing to tie the company's donation to the national group with a media campaign for Pawlenty, are likely what swayed the grand jury.
Vic Moore, a close associate of Moe's and a volunteer on his campaign, said when company lobbyist Ron Jerich asked him how a client could make a contribution, Moore told him to go through the national party.
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