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DFLer slams "Grunseth groupies"
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Rep. Tom Rukavina questions whether Pat Awada is qualified to be the state official charged with auditing local units of government, when her company had problems verifying consumer transactions. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
A DFL legislator is calling on House Republican leaders to investigate the involvement of Gov. Pawlenty and other top Republicans in telecommunications companies facing scrutiny for their marketing practices. Pawlenty was on the board of the parent company of New Access Communications, a reseller of phone services that has been fined in several states for switching consumers' service without proper authorization. DFLer Tom Rukavina says State Auditor Pat Awada should also be included in the probe. Awada owned a company that verified whether phone customers wanted to switch service to New Access Communications. Regulators in a couple of states say Awada's company didn't do an adequate job of that.

St. Paul, Minn. — Pat Awada owned Capitol Verification for seven years, and sold the company in January. During that time, Awada says the company verified five million calls for various clients. Five percent of that business was New Access Communications, accused of cheating customers in seven states.

Awada says Capitol Verification verified nearly 200,000 sales for New Access Communications. Of those, she says 178 were to people who didn't really want to switch their phone service to New Access, sales that should have been cancelled.

"I'm very proud of the work we did," Awada says. "We caught and cancelled 99.9 percent of all the invalid sales... It would be considered an excellent record. We were well respected in the industry; for a verification company to catch 99.9 percent is excellent."

Awada says of those 178 verified "slams," 68 were in Iowa, 6 in Wisconsin and 8 in North Dakota. The others were in the states of Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Indiana.

Investigations in Washington, Oregon and Indiana concluded that New Access wronged more than 5,600 people in 2001, either through overcharges or slamming. New Access was chaired by Elam Baer, a Republican strategist who worked on Jon Grunseth's 1990 gubernatorial bid with Awada. Awada says there's nothing wrong with doing business with friends in the political arena.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, disagrees. He calls Baer, Awada, Gov. Pawlenty and Vicky Grunseth, the "Grunseth groupies." Pawlenty was on the board of directors of New Access' parent company and Vicky Grunseth was the company's chief information officer.

"These people have all come together as old friends, I think like war buddies, as Ms. Awada said, and definitely they've got connections and they got elected to government, and she's the state auditor, and Gov. Pawlenty is the governor and Elam Baer was on his transition team and recommended people that were going to regulate him. And I just think it's wrong. And I think it certainly deserved to be looked at, because I think the average Minnesotan is out there thinking to themselves, 'just what the hell is going on here?'" Rukavina said.

Rukavina questions whether Awada is qualified to be the state official charged with auditing local units of government, when her company had problems verifying consumer transactions.

Awada says Rukavina's attacks appear to be political and personal. She says Rukavina will likely run for her job in 2006. During the legislative session he referred to her as Osama Bin Awada, after she recommended cutting state aid to cities by 40 percent.

Rukavina says there's nothing personal about his attack, and he simply wants the House Commerce Committee to investigate the situation. Committee Chair Greg Davids, a Republican from Preston, says he doesn't plan to hold hearings unless the state attorney general finds any wrongdoing by state officials. "And as I read it, and the more I read it, I thought, what are the charges? What are the allegations? What's the problem? And I couldn't find any. Businesses organize to make money. Businesses organize to serve a certain need in society, and the ultimate goal, in most cases unless you're a nonprofit, would be to make a profit. And so as I read through that, it appeared to me that forming a business is evil, that making money on a sale of stock or consulting fees is evil, but you know, that's how this country works," Davids said.

Rukavina also raised questions about Gov. Pawlenty's admission that he was paid $4,500 a month for legal services for Access Anywhere, another telecom company owned by Baer. Davids says if the Attorney General finds any illegalities with any of the telecom companies, he'll hold hearings.

The attorney general's office won't confirm or deny whether it is investigating the matter, but officials with New Access say the company is being investigated by the Attorney General.

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