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Capitol Chatter: Special prosecutor looks at Minnesotan Vin Weber

The U.S. Capitol in Washington reflects on wet concrete.1 / 2
Don Davis of Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL—A southwest Minnesota native and ex-congressman, who at 65 is known as a Washington "super lobbyist," apparently is in the sights of a grand jury looking into a Russian connection to the Trump for president campaign.

Vin Weber, a Republican, is being examined for his involvement in work on behalf of Ukrainian interests, The Associated Press reported late Thursday, Nov. 2. Also being examined is Democratic operative Tony Podesta.

The two are tied to Paul Manafort, who along with colleague Rick Gates were indicted earlier in the week on charges of being unregistered foreign agents and lying on federal forms. Manafort and Gates also face money laundering charges.

Reports out of Washington did not directly link Weber and Podesta to the Russian investigation, but news reports indicate that investigating them apparently shows an expansion of special prosecutor Robert Mueller's probe into whether Russia tried to influence the 2016 presidential campaign in favor of Donald Trump.

The new path for Mueller seems to include investigating people who tried to work as foreign agents, but did not register with the federal Justice Department. Still, it is not an entirely new angle since some of the Weber and Podesta discussion is about a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party, AP reports it has learned.

Weber and Podesta are cooperating with Mueller.

Weber, who served in Congress from to 1981 to 1993, runs the powerful Mercury lobbying firm and long has been considered one of Washington's most powerful lobbyists. Last year, he opposed the Trump candidacy.

While Weber came from Slayton, in the southwest, he now lists his home as Walker, in the north central part of the state.

Weber has lobbied for Russia's state-owned natural gas company.

Minnesota prices better

Minnesota wins a battle of individual health insurance premiums.

A Wisconsin group complains that those in the Badger state will pay 45 percent more for medium-level insurance policies that just went on sale for 2018.

Citizen Action of Wisconsin recently released its analysis of the two states' plans. Minnesotans can buy from private insurance agents or the state-run MNsure organization. In Wisconsin, they may get insurance privately or from a federal government website.

Even though Minnesota is cheaper, neither state does like it should, a Minnesota lawmaker said.

"The high cost of health insurance is just not sustainable in either Minnesota or Wisconsin," Minnesota state Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, said. "Our state ensured junk policies can't be sold, and audited our health plans in Minnesota to root out unjustified premium increases."

The study showed that Wisconsinites may pay $727 to $5,676 a year more than Minnesotans. Residents around Green Bay, Wis., pay the state's highest premiums.

Individuals policies that were studied are bought by people who do not have employer-provided insurance or government-funded coverage.

Franken vs. Sessions, again

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, is making a habit of attacking Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Franken asked Sessions months ago if he had contact with Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign. Sessions said he did not, although it later came out that he held several meetings with Russia officials.

Last month, Franken shot more questions at Sessions in a Senate hearing, this time asking if Sessions knew about any communications between the Trump campaign and Russia.Sessions said he did not think there was any. Days later, a special prosecutor's investigation began to build a connection between Russia and the campaign..

On Thursday, Nov. 2, Franken shipped pages of questions to Sessions on the subject.

In his letter to Sessions, Franken accused the former U.S. senator of lying.

Rural questions for candidates

Minnesota governor wannabes need to bone up on rural policies by Thursday, Nov. 9, when the Minnesota AgriGrowth Council hosts what it says will be the largest gathering of governor candidates.

Seven candidates have accepted the AgriGrowth invocation for a forum during the organization's annual meeting. It is one of many forums that have been held are are planned, a year before the election.

"It's important for our next governor to understand the critical issues and challenges affecting production agriculture and agribusiness across the state of Minnesota," AgriGrowth Executive Director Perry Aasness said.

Candidates who have accepted the invitation are Democrats Rep. Erin Murphy, Rep. Paul Thissen and State Auditor Rebecca Otto and Republicans Matt Dean, former GOP Chairman Keith Downey, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and Sen. Dave Osmek.

Also at the AgriGrowth conference, new Deputy Secretary Steve Censky of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will speak. He grew up near Jackson, Minn., and became the agency's No. 2 man a month ago.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.