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The Minnesota election court just heard arguments on Norm Coleman's motion to declare illegal ballots that he had previously agreed were legal, and boy was it tense.

The Coleman camp sent up James Langdon, the member of the team who has best come across as sympathetic and sincere. "We understand that we stipulated, and we take that very seriously," Langdon said. "However, our research told us we could not stipulate to make something legal that was in fact illegal."

The claim here is that the court has ruled that only strict standards will be applied in letting in any new ballots. But some of those 933 previously-rejected ballots that were counted on January 3 wouldn't pass this test. Therefore, the Coleman camp says, these ballots must be culled, tying the ballot itself to the original envelope for potential un-counting.

Langdon went even further and said that the Coleman campaign has filed a motion to apply the court's standards to all absentee ballots that have already been counted -- that is, the absentees from Election Night.

This contains an obvious problem: All those previous absentees were de-coupled from their envelopes on Election Night.

So the Coleman camp is now attempting to create a legal trap for the court: Undo the February 13th ruling and let in all those votes we want, or we will insist that the result is illegal.

And really, even if those other voters are let in, the Coleman camp might turn around and still insist that the whole count is illegal.

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The stock market's rocky ride today, stoked by senior Democratic senators appearing to foreshadow bank nationalization, prompted White House spokesman Robert Gibbs to re-assert the government's lack of interest in financial takeovers.

"This administration continues to strongly believe that a privately held banking system is the correct way to go," Gibbs told reporters today.

The market proceeded to rebound slightly before closing lower, with the Dow 100 points down. Was Wall Street indicating skepticism about Gibbs' intentions? Not to Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents the market's biggest players in Washington.

Talbott is strongly opposed to and unconcerned about nationalization -- but he pointed out that the term remains undefined in the public discourse. "There are two ways to do this," he told me.

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We mentioned yesterday that Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) was hanging onto the political donations he received from accused billion-dollar fraudster Allen Stanford.

But hold on! Cornyn seems to have reconsidered. The senator announced today that $4,000 would be donated to charity to offset contributions received from Stanford's company.

It's unclear how the $4,000 number was settled on, since Cornyn has received nearly $20,000 in Stanford-linked donations since 2000. But as chairman of the oft-cash-strapped Senate GOP campaign committee, Cornyn may have a serious need to hold onto all the contributions he can.

This leaves Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) as the other notable holdout from returning Stanford donations. Stay strong, congressman.

We've now found a case of lead Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg actually being concerned about ballot fraud, and wanting to keep a vote out as a result -- so much so that he'll speculate about a Franken-voter being mentally disabled.

Really. No joke.

In court just now, lead Franken lawyer Marc Elias went over a rejected ballot envelope for which he said a power of attorney had been granted by a disabled voter, to allow a family member to fill it out. The issue was that the mark made to authorize the family member was not a signature or a conventional "X", but was instead an amorphous scribble. Elias and Goodhue County elections official Carolyn Holmsted spent some time hashing it out.

Then Friedberg took issue with this whole idea of the power of attorney to fill out a ballot, which is a specifically allowed clause in Minnesota law for disabled voters.

"And normally, people give powers of attorney because they're incompetent, mentally disabled," Friedberg began, before he was interrupted by a very loud objection from the Franken side.

"Your honor, this door was opened," Friedberg replied.

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Norm Coleman's legal filing from this morning, calling for the throwing-out of ballots he previously agreed were legal, really has the Franken camp angry. The new Franken filing in response doesn't just call for the Coleman lawyers' request to be denied, but goes further: "Contestants' effort to renege on the stipulation they freely entered and eviscerate the binding order of this Court warrants the imposition of sanctions." (Emphasis ours.)

The case here from the Franken camp is that the 933 absentee ballots in question should never have been numbered in the first place, as it violates the secret ballot -- they objected to it when the Coleman camp demanded it, but the Secretary of State's office did it, anyway. Thus, they said, they entered into a careful negotiation with the Coleman camp to stipulate that the ballots were all legal, and that the numbers would be blacked out. Now Coleman has declared the agreement null and void.

"As the Court is well aware, the February 3 Stipulation and Order was the product of lengthy negotiations between the parties," the filing said. "One key purpose of the Stipulation and Order was to settle a claim in litigation. Settlement agreements -- especially those turned into orders -- are highly favored by the courts."

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"It's not often that an owner sets an unlimited budget for creating a tabletop. The Pavilion in Antigua is that rare situation."

That's from a 2004 "Tabletop Performance Special Mention" -- which seems to be some kind award for setting the table. And we're betting you can guess who that free-spending owner is.

The write-up, posted on the site AllBusiness.com, continues:

This restaurant's owner, R. Allen Stanford, created this extremely luxurious, 5-star dining establishment in 2003. It not only serves local residents and guests but also Stanford's high-net-worth clients who fly into Antigua to visit the Stanford International Bank with interest in investing in one of his operations on this island located in the eastern Caribbean.

...

Located at the entrance to V.C. Bird International Airport and overlooking the Stanford Cricket Grounds, The Pavilion was designed in the style of the great Caribbean plantation homes of the 18th century. To showcase their wealth, taste and sophistication, European settlers built these grand residences, called "Great Houses."


It gives a shout-out to Stanford's one-time girlfriend, Andrea Stoelker, who was then managing the restaurant -- and whose brother owns the house in Fredericksburg, Virginia where Stanford has been staying in recent days:
Also instrumental in the design process was The Pavilion's manager, Andrea Stoelker, who charged Nodler and Bailey to "design a tabletop fit for a king." Literally, no expense was spared to accomplish this goal. With the owner's blessing to spend $160 per sterling-silver goblet, $32.50 per crystal stem, $65 per glass bread & butter plate and $10 per pure linen napkin, a spectacular table was set.


Literally!

In case you wanted more details about the table:
The chinaware is primarily Bernaudaud's sculptured undecorated Provence pattern, with the bread & butter plates and the tea cups customized for this installation. The glass service plates are a retail item that the interior designers located and specified and are used in the wine cellar with its reclaimed oak beam-and-timber ceiling, handmade used American bricks and antique French limestone floor, which also houses its 10,000-bottle collection of vintage wine. The glass B&B plates from Annieglass, used as accent pieces, are again retail items made from recycled windowpanes. The crystal stemware is from Riedel's Sommelier collection and is complemented by Christofle Hotel's heavy French silver-plated flatware in its Beau Harnais pattern. Of course the selection process was geared to serve the French creole cuisine of Executive Chef Andrew Knoll.


Of course.

And to top it off:
While the customer felt that Riedel's wine glassware was perfect, they wanted a totally unique water glass. The result was the location and purchase of custom sterling-silver goblets, which, according to Bailey, were handmade for the client in Istanbul, Turkey, each arriving in its own gift sack.

It is now quite possible that the political landscape in California, the single largest state in the Union and home to about 12% of the country's population, could undergo a transformation that would drastically change the ideological balance.

And it all comes down to political science. Like most other states, each party in California now holds its own primary to select a standard-bearer for the general election. (The parties are allowed to exclude registered independents.) Democrats always allow the indies in, while Republicans will often keep it closed. Left-wingers often win Dem primaries, and right-wingers win for the GOP.

But in exchange for his vote to pass the budget, moderate Republican state Senator Abel Maldonado demanded and received a provision setting a 2010 referendum to switch to something else called "Top Two," used in Louisiana and Washington state. All candidates run on the same primary ballot, and the top two candidates, regardless of party, advance to a runoff.

So in deep-blue districts there would be two Democrats, and deep-red districts would produce two Republicans. The relatively moderate candidates would then have the edge in those districts, which Maldonado says is needed to improve the legislative process. (In an interesting twist, the office of governor is exempted.)

A previous referendum on this proposal was held in 2004, but it failed 46%-54%. The Dems didn't even remotely want it this time -- Maldonado forced it in exchange for his budget vote.

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Hmmm ... let's say you were planning the schedule for Monday's Fiscal Responsibility Summit at the White House, and you were looking for candidates to talk about "Contracting and Procurement." Would you select the longtime defense-industry lobbyist who had to get an exemption from ethics rules in order to win his Pentagon post?

I only ask because Bill Lynn, the deputy defense secretary and former Raytheon K Streeter, will be one of those leading the "Contracting and Procurement" session (h/t to Ben Smith).

On another note, any thoughts about Treasury Secretary Geithner leading the "Tax" portion of the summit?

Ken Lewis, Bank of America's embattled CEO, was subpoenaed last week in New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's investigation into the billion dollar bonuses awarded late last year by Merrill Lynch, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The paper adds that former Merrill CEO John Thain, who had previously been subpoenaed, talked to Cuomo's team "all day" Thursday.

Bank of America announced in September that it would acquire Merrill. In December, according to reports, Thain and the Merrill board approved billions in bonuses on an expedited schedule before the firm came under the control of B of A January 1, and despite massive fourth quarter losses.

Accounts of when Lewis and B of A learned of the bonus awards, and of the losses, have been conflicting.

Thain was ousted by Lewis last month as a senior B of A exec.

The Journal adds some more detail on what Cuomo's investigators are after:

In particular, they wanted to know why the September merger agreement contained a nonpublic attachment that outlined the maximum Merrill could pay. A Thain spokesman declined to comment.

The person close to the matter said regulators are turning their attention to Mr. Lewis and are looking at his testimony to Congress earlier this month when he said he had "no authority" over bonuses given they were detailed in the merger agreement and part of the bonuses were paid in Bank of America stock.

Mr. Cuomo's investigators are exploring how Merrill could have set and then informed employees about the bonuses before the quarter closed, according to a person familiar with the matter. They are probing whether trading losses were adequately disclosed to shareholders and boards of each company and what the top executives approving the bonuses knew about the losses.

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