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Pawlenty associate resigns in telecom dispute

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - Gov. Tim Pawlenty's former campaign manager quit his Commerce Department job after DFLers vowed to investigate the roles the governor and other top Republicans played in a telecommunications company accused of cheating consumers in seven states.

Timothy Commers said Monday evening that he was leaving as a special assistant to the commissioner effective immediately. He also said he had acted ethically at the department and had not compromised the interests of Minnesota consumers.

"It is clear that I have become a lightning rod for those who disagree with the governor. It is unfortunate that politics has once again distracted us from the job at hand, only to focus attention on baseless innuendo and insinuation," Commers wrote in a statement.

Commers resigned a few hours after Senate Democrats said that not only would they hold hearings, they expected to invite Pawlenty to testify.

"In light of the current national debate over corporate governance, our governor needs to disclose the degree to which he carried out his responsibility to monitor the actions of the company," said Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, chairwoman of the commerce and utilities committee.

Pawlenty said he hadn't decided whether he would testify. And he continued to maintain that he was unaware of the complaints when he served as a director of the telecom's parent company, NewTel Holdings.

"The Democrats have hearings on anything," Pawlenty said. "I guess they'll have a hearing on this too."

Pawlenty said he was on the board of directors of NewTel for less than a year when it owned New Access Communications and the board "did not get involved in the day-to-day operations" of New Access.

New Access last year paid $222,000 to settle charges it violated consumer protection laws in Washington, Oregon and Indiana, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Investigators in those states concluded that New Access wronged more than 5,600 people in 2001, either through overcharges or "slamming," improperly switching customers from one telephone company to another.

Other prominent Minnesota Republicans with business ties to the Minneapolis-based company include:

-State Auditor Patricia Awada, who ran a company charged with verifying customers truly wanted to switch their telephone service. Regulators said the company failed in that role.

-GOP strategist Elam Baer, the chairman of New Access board, who was an unofficial adviser to Pawlenty's transition team. Pawlenty said Baer asked him to become a director at NewTel, which he did in December 1999.

-Vicki Grunseth, New Access' chief information officer, and Pawlenty's appointee to head the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

Commers started a phone company with Baer that New Access acquired a year ago and was a NewTel investor. It's not the first time Commers has been involved in controversy.

When Commers formed a committee several years ago to raise money for the anti-abortion movement, Prolife Minnesota sued him, accusing his telemarketers of falsely claiming affiliation with the group. The case ended in a settlement.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Mike Hatch accused the Commerce Department of giving favorable treatment to a troubled Florida insurance company that had donated money to the Pawlenty campaign, a contribution Commers handled.

Alluding to the media coverage of the issue and Anderson's comparison of him and other administration officials to a fox guarding a hen house, Commers told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis: "Why should I put myself through this when I can go back to the private sector?"

Anderson and Sen. Steve Kelley, of Hopkins, reserved some of their toughest talk for Commers. "A person who has engaged in deceptive telecommunications practices should not be appointed as the government official charged with protecting the consumer from such activities."

Pawlenty, though, said Commers's job didn't include overseeing telecommunications.

Pawlenty didn't advertise his ties to the company during his campaign for governor. His role as director wasn't listed on campaign biographies, and he wasn't listed on the company's official articles of incorporation.

He listed his position on a 2001 economic disclosure report that office holders are required to file, and crossed it off on the following year's report. He did list himself as a stockholder with NewTel in both reports and said Monday he was compensated for his work solely in stock that he sold for $10,000.

In a news conference, Pawlenty said he hasn't served on any other corporate boards, but his spokesman later said Pawlenty had misspoke and served on the board of directors of a software consulting business, Stratika. A company press release says Pawlenty joined the board in May 2001. Spokesman Dan Wolter said Pawlenty received no compensation for attending an organizational meeting for the company.

Awada on Tuesday morning aggressively defended her company's work verifying that customers wanted to switch their phone service to New Access.

"I'm very proud of what we've done and proud of my company," she said in an interview on KSTP-AM.

Meanwhile, House Democrats planned at a news conference later Tuesday morning to accuse Pawlenty of working against anti-slamming legislation while he was both a lawmaker and director of NewTel in 2001. Pawlenty noted on Monday that he was a co-sponsor of the state's do-not-call legislation, which became law in 2002.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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