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Bills' first TV ad accuses Klobuchar of shielding felon; senator says ad is 'desperate attack'

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Kurt Bills campaign
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills at rally Friday, Oct. 12, 2012 in Ham Lake, Minn. Bills' first television advertisement of the campaign accuses Sen. Amy Klobuchar of not pursuing a case despite having evidence of a crime, while she was a prosecutor in the Hennepin County Attorney's Office.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Kurt Bills will run his first television advertisement of the campaign tonight during the Vikings game.

The ad alleges DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar did not pursue charges against convicted swindler Tom Petters because he gave her campaign contributions. Klobuchar's campaign said the allegations are false and are being pushed by a desperate candidate who is behind in the polls. 

The ad says Klobuchar decided against prosecuting Petters even though she had evidence of his crimes.

"Tom Petters ranks second only to Madoff, and Amy Klobuchar helped keep him out of prison. As county attorney, she refused to prosecute Petters, even though evidence crossed her desk. Instead, Klobuchar took his campaign cash. Over $100,000 from Petters to Klobuchar's senate campaign. Petters' victims still wait for justice. We can't wait to end Amy Klobuchar's dangerous career of cash and cover-up."

A conservative website, the Daily Caller, published a story last week that said Klobuchar passed on prosecuting Petters when she was Hennepin County attorney even though she saw documents that showed Petters was involved in a financial agreement with an accomplice whom she did prosecute. In 2009, after Klobuchar was in the Senate, Petters was convicted in federal court of 20 felony counts including money laundering, conspiracy and fraud. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison for setting up a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of millions of dollars.

"I'm running the ad to make the case. There are allegations against Sen. Klobuchar. If true, they are pretty serious," said Mike Osskopp, Bills' campaign manager.

Klobuchar, left, and Bills debate in Duluth
Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar debates against state Rep. Kurt Bills, R-Rosemount, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012 at the Duluth Playhouse in Duluth, Minn. Klobuchar's campaign said Bills' ad is a last-minute desperate attack.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Osskopp was reluctant to accuse Klobuchar of covering up a crime, even though Bills' name is on the ad that said she did. Instead, Osskopp said the campaign is running the ad because it wants the media to investigate the story.

"We're hoping somebody eventually demands that the media finds out the truth. What is the truth? Is what the Daily Caller said true? If it is, the people of Minnesota need to know that," Osskopp said. "If what the Daily Caller said isn't accurate then the people of Minnesota need to know that too."

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office and Klobuchar say the allegations are false. The county attorney's office did charge an associate of Petters in 1998 with theft by swindle. The associate later pleaded guilty. The office said it was never presented with any evidence of criminal activity by Petters. The U.S. Attorney's Office, which eventually prosecuted Petters, said it only learned of the allegations against him when a witness came forward in 2008.

Klobuchar's campaign said Bills' ad is a last-minute desperate attack and that the allegations in the initial story are based on inaccurate information from a convicted felon. Klobuchar said she was never presented with any evidence of wrongdoing by Petters when she was county attorney.

"No one had ever brought information of charges to me, nor did I ever tell anyone in the office not to investigate Tom Petters or not to pursue a case," Klobuchar said, "That is fully supported by the people in the office and the county attorney's office that I worked with."

Bills should back up his allegations if he has evidence, Klobuchar said.

"If my opponent has some kind of proof of some criminal allegation here, he should bring it to law enforcement," Klobuchar said. "I believe we need to focus on the U.S. Senate and the future of this country."

Klobuchar is not the only politician who raised campaign money from Petters, who gave roughly $200,000 to political candidates in both parties. They include former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann and former DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar.

Once Petters was charged, many of those politicians either returned the money to Petters or gave it to a fund created for his victims or to a charity. Klobuchar gave $42,000 to charity and later gave $80,400 to the trustee for Petters' victims when he approached her for reimbursement. 

That trustee, Doug Kelley, said the allegations in Bills' ad are preposterous.

"To base a serious ad on testimony which has been so thoroughly discredited is irresponsible," Kelley said. "I would expect a serious candidate for high office in this state to go out and be careful about allegations such as that."

Kelley, who said he is a lifelong Republican, said Osskopp approached him earlier this year to see if he had anything the campaign could use against Klobuchar. Kelley said he told Osskopp in a voice mail that he was barking up the wrong tree.

Editor's note:

This story has been changed to say that Doug Kelley made his comments to Mike Osskopp in a voice mail, which Kelley clarified to MPR News after the story was originally published.

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