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Legislation provides more questions than answers

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

Silence can breed skepticism. 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.

A lawmaker proposes using tax dollars to fund organizations that teach first aid to youth seems simple enough.

The feds and Coleman moved on to other pressing matters.

Yet, looking deeper into it 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. That organization, Save A Life Foundation, operates out of Illinois and 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?

Homeland Security officials responded to an initial inquiry, but clammed up when asked about Save A Life.

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. The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party issued a statement Friday after a report on the issue was published on the Internet. The DFL Party tried to connect Coleman to what it called the "shady" Save A Life Foundation.

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), would not grant an interview with the senator. After the Friday Internet report, the press secretary issued a statement in which he said the senator "never sought nor secured an appropriation, nor advocated for Save A Life Foundation."

In the statement, LeRoy Coleman said that after Hurricane Katrina, organizations advocated that children learn life-saving skills in the event of future national disasters. The senator supported that effort, but his legislation did not provide any earmarks and left decisions about the program to Homeland Security.

"These type of valuable efforts, regardless of where they originate, that help save lives and provide valuable assistance to emergency responders, are something the Senator is proud to support," LeRoy Coleman said.