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Scott Wente, Published January 29 2009

Coleman, Franken both say man’s testimony helps their case

ST. PAUL – Attorneys for Norm Coleman and Al Franken each claim one man’s testimony boosted their case, but he said the court, not a campaign, was the intended beneficiary.

The man in the middle was Jim Gelbmann, the deputy secretary of state who was involved in the Senate recount and was the first major witness in the Senate election trial.

Norm Coleman’s campaign called Gelbmann, a Woodbury resident, to testify as it tries to convince a three-judge panel to overturn election results showing Al Franken won by 225 votes.

Coleman’s campaign is trying to show ballots were treated differently around the state and that some valid absentee ballots were wrongly rejected. Attorney Joe Friedberg asked Gelbmann about specific absentee ballots, including one that was rejected because the witness signed her first name differently than the name state officials had on file.

“There isn’t any question in your mind it should be let in, correct?” Friedberg asked.

“In my opinion, no,” Gelbmann said.

But under a Minnesota Supreme Court order, each campaign blocked some improperly rejected absentee ballots from being included in the recount, he added.

Coleman attended the trial’s third day and said Gelbmann helped him.

“He clearly stated there are (valid) absentee ballots ... and those votes aren’t counted,” the Republican said.

Franken attorney David Lillehaug used his cross-examination of Gelbmann to suggest that Coleman’s position on absentee ballots has changed. That’s a key reason Franken’s campaign says the election results should not be overturned.

The Coleman campaign wants up to 12,000 rejected absentee ballots reviewed by the trial judges, but Franken attorneys argue that those were reviewed multiple times and local officials did the best they could to count valid ballots.

“Mr. Gelbmann’s testimony has reiterated and made clear our central point, which is that these election officials were professionals,” Franken attorney Marc Elias said. Elias acknowledged that Franken believes there are some improperly rejected absentee ballots that have not been counted.

Gelbmann said his testimony, which is expected to continue today, is not meant to help either campaign.

Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or swente@forumcomm.com