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Commentary: More questions than answers over odd Coleman bill

ST. PAUL -- In the world of politics, the public often needs to hear straight from government officials involved before understanding and forming an opinion on a particular issue.

Silence can breed skepticism, sometimes unwarranted.

Take the example of a recent news tip about little-known legislation authored two years ago by U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman. The Minnesota Republican wanted to spend $40 million to help teach children basic first aid.

"This legislation gives us the opportunity to support an initiative that can truly pay dividends down the road by giving the American people the training and tools to help other citizens in times of emergencies," Coleman wrote in 2006, after a streamlined version of his proposal - without funding attached - passed as part of a Department of Homeland Security bill.

On its surface, the episode hardly deserves a skeptical look: A lawmaker proposes using tax dollars to fund organizations that teach first aid to youth. And the program did not get started because Homeland Security officials said Congress did not provide needed funds.

Supposedly, that was the end of it. The feds and Coleman moved on to other pressing matters.

Yet, reporting yielded interesting facts. An emergency training organization with a controversial leader claimed it sought the legislation, had Coleman's support and expected to reap funding from the program. That organization, Save A Life Foundation, operates out of Illinois and while it administers training in a number of states, has little affiliation with Minnesota.

Additionally, there was no detailed explanation for why the Coleman-backed program deemed important enough to pass Congress never got off the ground. And, perhaps most interesting to taxpayers, it was not clear whether Coleman or federal officials worked to prevent Save A Life from getting public money once it became embroiled in controversy months later.

Calls were made, including to the foundation, Homeland Security officials and Coleman's office. Some questions came to mind, for which the answers might have promptly dispelled any speculation that something strange had occurred:

-- Did Coleman author the legislation with the foundation in mind?

-- Since lawmakers like to talk about how they help their constituents, did Coleman believe Minnesota children could benefit from the legislation?

-- Did Coleman or federal officials make sure Save A Life did not get federal funds after news reports suggested the group's leadership had made false claims? Certainly that itself would be newsworthy, particularly given the public's interest in congressional spending.

Homeland Security officials responded to an initial inquiry, but clammed up when asked about Save A Life Foundation. There was nothing more to discuss, they said.

The foundation's leader, Carol Spizzirri, would not return repeated calls.

Even the office of Coleman's Democratic opponent, Al Franken, had heard of Save A Life Foundation but refused to talk about the issue.

Surely Coleman, a Republican locked in a fierce re-election battle, would be willing to explain the issue.

The senator's press secretary, LeRoy Coleman (no relation to the senator), said the proposed program was benign and, as happens occasionally, just never got off the ground. He said liberals were trying to smear Coleman by suggesting a connection between the senator and the controversial Save A Life Foundation.

The spokesman would not grant an interview with Coleman, arguing there was no legitimate story because nothing unusual happened.

That may be, but it's hard for the public to decide that when left with so many unanswered questions.