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No matter how many times you tell Norm Coleman's legal team that it's generally illegal to sign somebody else's name on a legal document, they're just not giving up on it.

Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg is going over rejected ballots one by one with Dakota County elections manager Kevin Boyle. And again we've come to the matter of a fake signature on an absentee ballot application -- though at least this time the person signing the name was admitting it up front.

A voter's mother signed his name to the absentee application, writing "mother" right next to it in parentheses. Thus the signature on the ballot envelope itself -- possibly the voter's -- didn't match the one of the application. Friedberg couldn't let it go:

Friedberg: Now, is it your position that if somebody signs the application with the permission of the voter, that does not make it a lawful application, or it does make it a lawful application?

Boyle: In the case of the regular absentee ballot applications, we would need the mark or the signature of the applicant, not the applicant's mother.

Friedberg: Is that because you would need it to compare to the voter's signature on the ballot, on the envelope?

Boyle: That's one of the reasons.

At this point Friedberg quietly moved on to the next ballot in his stack.

It could have been worse. A while ago, Friedberg was declaring that he didn't care about the rules forbidding this.

From Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's appearance today on Fox News:

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, you know, it wasn't too long ago that you were in the House as a Republican. All of your colleagues last week voted against this. Would you have voted for it?

LAHOOD: Well, look, I'm -- I am not in the House anymore. I didn't get elected to anything last November and I'm a part of the President Obama team.

While we're discussing the devastating effects of the Senate stimulus compromise on state budgets, it's worth pointing out that the centrist negotiators didn't just cut $40 billion in state aid.

The stimulus deal cut over the weekend also restricted states' use of stabilization money, requiring governors to use all of their share on education. Under the original Senate stimulus, states could use 61% of their aid from Washington on education and the remaining 39% on public safety or other pressing needs.

By no means am I suggesting that education isn't a worthy use for that cash. But if the centrists had left aid to the states intact, rather than cutting it in half, perhaps California could avoid furloughing government workers without pay. And maybe North Carolina could avoid shutting down mental hospitals and a major prison.

Ben Smith raised an interesting question this morning: Why did Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), whom President Obama has singled out as a valuable mentor, pass up the chance to ride to Indiana on Air Force One today?

Lugar's absence looked a bit amiss to Mike Tomasky and other wise heads, particularly since Rep. Fred Upton (MI) -- another Republican whose vote on the final stimulus bill is still within reach for the president -- did join Obama on today's trip. But as a Lugar spokesman explained to me, the senator had a pretty good reason to decline the Air Force One invitation.

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The changes at the SEC continuing apace.

Days after the agency was excoriated by whistleblower Harry Markopolos, and by lawmakers, for failing to catch Bernie Madoff's alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme, CNBC reports that enforcement director Linda Thomsen -- whose department came in for perhaps the most criticism over Madoff, will likely announce her departure today.

And several outlets have reported, starting over the weekend, that Thomsen's replacement will be Robert Khuzami, a former federal prosecutor who's now Deutsche Bank's top lawyer.

During Thomsen's tenure, the SEC has, by many accounts, devoted fewer resources to enforcement, and made it more difficult for investigators to obtain subpoenas -- changes led in large part by former chair Chris Cox.

As for Khuzami, he's a Republican who spoke at the 2004 GOP Convention in support of the Patriot Act and President Bush's policies in the war on terror. But as a prosecutor, he successfully oversaw some high-profile cases. He was part of the team that got convictions of a blind Egyptian cleric and nine others for a failed plot to blow up New York City landmarks. And, crucially, he led the team that won a conviction on the largest previous known Ponzi scheme, in which Patrick Bennett bilked investors out of $700 million. In 1997, the Clinton Justice Department gave Khuzami its highest citation, the Attorney General's Award for Exceptional Service.

In addition, on Friday the new SEC chair, Mary Schapiro, named David Becker, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb, as the agency's top lawyer. Becker held the same position from 2000 to 2002.

So the names on the doors of senior officials are certainly changing. Whether that improves the agency's regulatory performance, of course, remains to be seen. But the old crew was hardly inspiring confidence.

Back in January, TPM crowned its first Sleeper Bill of the Month, praising a proposal by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) that would set up an independent panel -- with subpoena power -- to probe civil liberties and human rights abuses committed during the Bush years.

The measure has yet to receive a hearing, but it's slowly amassing support from connected Democratic lawmakers, with the biggest breakthrough coming about an hour ago. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), in a speech at Georgetown University, endorsed the creation of an independent "truth and reconciliation" commission. Here's what Leahy said:

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Washington has a way of blurring the human impact of a major policy debate -- such as the one going on right now over the stimulus -- by using vague and dense terminology to describe certain programs. Take, for instance, this talk of "state stabilization funds" that were cut back by $40 billion this weekend in the deal cut by Senate centrists.

The term sounds bone-dry, but the stabilization funds are a crucial bulwark against budget deficits that are already forcing layoffs, cutbacks, and higher taxes and fees in 39 states, 21 of which have at least one GOP senator. You heard right: Senate Republicans are insisting on cutting federal aid to their own states in the name of fiscal responsibility -- while some of these state governments are actually pulling back on tax breaks in response.

"If you take a combination of the [budget] gaps for the rest of the current fiscal year, the gaps for the next fiscal year, and the gaps for 2011, [when] unemployment is still going to be high ... we estimate that the [total state budget] gap is $350 billion to $370 billion," Nick Johnson, director of the state fiscal project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), told me.

Compare that two-year deficit to the $79 billion in state stabilization funding that was included in both the House and Senate's original stimulus bills; then consider that the Senate's compromise left states with only $39 billion to close their budget gaps. Better yet, consider the plights of Maine and Arizona ...

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The White House has just announced that President Obama will be campaigning for the stimulus plan tomorrow in Fort Myers, Florida -- where he'll be introduced by Republican Governor Charlie Crist.

It's odd to think that Crist -- who hit the campaign trail in a big way for John McCain last year, and has been courted to run for the open Senate seat -- has now broken ranks in such a conspicuous manner as to publicly appear with Obama.

It's not just that, but his official statement praises Obama in language that one would normally use for a political ally: "I am eager to welcome President Obama to the Sunshine State as he continues to work hard to reignite the US economy."

So what to make of the allegation against newly elected GOP chairman Michael Steele, that his 2006 Senate campaign made payments to a company run by his sister, for work that was never performed?

It's not yet clear. The claim comes from a court filing made last March by Alan Fabian -- Steele's finance chair during that campaign -- who was facing unrelated fraud charges and hoped, in vain, to get credit for cooperation. In the end, Fabian was sentenced to nine years in jail for swindling millions from businesses and banks.

So there's reason to be skeptical.

But there isn't reason to dismiss the claim out of hand. For one thing, the Feds appear to be taking it seriously: Agents have spoken to Steele's sister about the issue, according to a Steele spokesman.

Steele told ABC's This Week that the FBI is "winding this thing down" but didn't explain how he knew that. And although Steele added that the payments were for legitimate work, the explanations from his camp don't yet add up.

At issue is a February 2007 payment of more than $37,000 made by Steele's unsuccessful Senate campaign to Brown Sugar Unlimited, a company run by Monica Turner, Steele's sister (and also the former Mrs. Mike Tyson, incidentally).

According to campaign finance records, reports the Post, the payments were for "catering/web services." But a Steele spokesman told the paper that Turner "did a lot of media stuff" for the campaign. The spokesman then showed the paper an invoice for catering services for two events. But the invoice was dated December 2006, although the events occurred in October 2006 and July 2007. The spokesman attributed this to a typo.

So, was it media, web services, or catering? How many companies do all three?

There's also the fact that, as the Post reports, "Turner filed papers to dissolve the company 11 months before the payment was received". (Steele told ABC yesterday that Turner believed the company was still in existence when the payments were made.)

The payments to Turner aren't the only allegations Fabian is making against Steele. There are three additional -- and apparently less serious -- claims.

One is that Steele, who at the time was Maryland's lieutenant-governor, used his state campaign to pay bills invoiced to his 2006 Senate campaign for printing services, totaling around $38,000 -- which would violate campaign finance law. Steele's spokesman says the printing was related to Steele's lieutenant governor's office.

Another claim is that Steele paid $75,000 from the state campaign to the law firm of Baker Hostetler, for work that was never performed. The payment was listed in campaign finance records as an in-kind contribution to the state GOP. And a lawyer for Baker Hostetler -- who was also chief counsel for the RNC -- told the Post that the payment was for legal work on challenging Maryland's 2002 legislative redistricting.

Finally, Fabian claims that Steele or an aide transferred more than $500,000 in campaign cash from one bank to another without appropriate authorization. The bank transfer appears to have angered aides to former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich, who had hoped to use the money for other states races, including Ehrlich's. But there doesn't appear to be evidence that it was illegal.

There's also no evidence that the Feds are looking into any of these latter three claims. So it's those payments to Steele's sister's company that appear to be where the action is. And until we get a fuller explanation of what those payments were really for, this story will probably linger.

That can't be a prospect that will please a Republican Party that just made Steele its major national spokesman.

Yet another poll, this time from CNN, shows that President Obama is viewed very positively in the legislative battles over the stimulus bill, while the Republican Party remains the unpopular player in this game

Obama has a 76% overall job approval and 23% disapproval. On the economy specifically, his rating is 72%-28%. Meanwhile, Congress has a very poor rating of 29%-71% -- but it quickly becomes clear that this should be not be simply laid at the feet of the majority Democrats, and is instead the GOP's fault.

The Democratic leadership in Congress has a solid rating of 60%-39%, while the Republican leaders are at 44%-55%. Furthermore, respondents said by 74%-25% that Obama is doing enough to cooperate with Republicans, while they say by a 60%-39% margin that Republicans are not doing enough to cooperate with him.

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