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Jury is chosen in Eibensteiner trial

By Matthew Stolle

mstolle@postbulletin.com

With national Republicans reeling from charges of ethical and legal misconduct, a jury trial began in Olmsted County to determine whether the former chairman of the state Republican Party violated laws governing campaign finance contributions.

Ron Eibensteiner is accused of helping an insurance company improperly channel money into the 2002 gubernatorial race, which GOP candidate Tim Pawlenty won.

The four gross misdemeanor charges were originally filed in Mower County, where Eibensteiner allegedly bought advertising that ran on KAAL-TV, but they were moved to Olmsted County because of the pretrial publicity surrounding the case.

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The first day of trial saw the selection of five women and three men as jurors. Opening statements were to be given today, and prosecutors say they will call Mike Hatch -- the DFL attorney general and recently declared gubernatorial candidate -- to the stand as one of their first witnesses.

State law makes it illegal for corporations to contribute to Minnesota campaigns. Eibensteiner is accused of facilitating an illegal campaign contribution from American Bankers, a Florida-based insurance company that was determined to see Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny defeated in the 2002 election.

American Bankers wanted Penny defeated because he vowed to reappoint state Commerce Commissioner Jim Bernstein, who was pursuing a regulatory matter against the company that could have resulted in a multimillion-dollar fine.

American Bankers offered $10,000 checks to the leaders of the campaigns of Pawlenty and of DFL candidate Roger Moe.

But because of state law, the checks were sent to Washington-based political committees that are permitted to accept corporate donations. Later, the Minnesota Republican Party, chaired by Eibensteiner, received about $2.6 million from the national committee. The Democratic Governors Association gave $399,000 to the Minnesota DFL Party.

Eibensteiner's lawyer, William Mauzy, has argued that his client is a victim of selective prosecution, because similar charges have not been brought against the DFL Party.

But special prosecutor Earl Gray has argued that he is simply following the evidence, which he says includes a thank-you letter written by Eibensteiner to the American Bankers lobbyist after the $10,000 contribution.

During jury selection, defense attorney William Mauzy probed potential jurors about their political affiliations. The process revealed that none of the potential jurors identified themselves as Democratic, but were either Republican, independent or undecided.

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Lawyers wrangled briefly over the composition of the jury when Mauzy moved to strike from the jury the lone African-American. Gray objected to her removal, saying the challenge was motivated by race. The woman was eliminated from the jury.

African-Americans have traditionally been supporters of the Democratic Party. Mauzy said race was not the issue, but political preference was, and that he sought her removal because she had identified herself as an independent. Mauzy said he was looking for jurors "who associate themselves as Republicans as opposed to" independents.

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