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We're really now in crunch-time in Minnesota, with the court handing down one important ruling after another -- and they just did it again.

The court has released a new order, co-signed with the consent of both sides' lawyers, to deal with the problem of what have come to be known as "3-A" ballots -- a category where a newly-registering absentee voter included their registration form inside the internal secrecy envelope containing the ballot, rather than immediately within the outer envelope as it was supposed to be done.

When the ballots arrived during the election, many counties rejected them because of a failure to register to vote. But other areas would open up those secrecy envelopes, with the election workers staying blind to the actual vote inside, and feel around for a registration card in order to help get that vote counted.

The court has now commanded the counties to open the ballots on a long list of potential 3-A's -- a little bit over 1,500 envelopes -- to look for registration cards, and to organize a full listing of ballots with complete registrations, incomplete registrations or no form at all, and to get the job done by this Wednesday.

The ballots with valid registrations are not being counted yet -- but this is the first step in getting there.

So who would stand to benefit from this?

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As New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's investigation continues, it's becoming increasingly clear that Bank of America, and its CEO Ken Lewis, haven't been straight on the subject of what they knew about those outlandish Merrill bonuses.

ABC News yesterday revealed details of the agreement signed by the two banks back in September, when they agreed that B of A would take over Merrill starting January 1. According to it sources, the agreement says that bonuses "shall be determined by the company (Merrill) in consultation with the parent (Bank of America)."

The network added that the two firms at first agreed that Merrill could hand out up to $5.8 billion. That figure was then added to "under $4 billion" after a conversation between Merrill CEO John Thain and a top B of A exec Steele Alphin, who's a close Lewis confidant.

In other words, Bank of America had a clear role in working with Merrill to determine the amount of the bonuses awarded.

But that's not at all how B of A has represented things.

When the Financial Times first broke (sub. req.) the bonus story last month, B of A told the paper:

Merrill Lynch was an independent company until January 1 2009. John Thain (Merrill's chief executive) decided to pay year-end incentives in December as opposed to their normal date in January. B of A was informed of his decision.

And in his testimony before Congress earlier this month, Lewis said:
They were a public company until the first of the year, they had a separate board, separate compensation committee and we had no authority to tell them what to do, just urged them what to do.

It's not clear whether that that outright contradicts the language of the agreement, as ABC has reported it. But whether or not the agreement gave B of A formal "authority" to set Merrill's bonus levels, it certainly gave them an explicit role in the process (assuming ABC's sources are rendering the wording of the agreement accurately). Which is a lot more than B of A's few carefully crafted public statements on the subject have implied.

Thain, Lewis, and Alphin have all been subpoenaed by Cuomo (Thain has now "told all, says ABC), so you've got to think we'll be getting to the bottom of this soon. And it doesn't seem like it'll look good for the increasingly embattled Lewis when we do.

The fireworks have been continuing today at the local level in the Minnesota election trial -- and the national parties got involved in Washington, too, the place where this election could finally be decided.

At a Democratic leadership press conference today, Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer responded to a question about the case by saying they expected it to be wrapped up and for Franken to be seated in weeks. "The projections -- and they're not locked in -- are that this should all be finished by the very beginning of April," said Schumer.

Schumer did acknowledge that the process isn't over, but predicted that it will end. "The people of Minnesota are very fair people, and they'll grant him appeals," Schumer said. "But sooner or later this is going to come to an end."

Harry Reid chimed in: "There's going to come a time when Coleman's going to have to recognize that he's lost -- he's lost this election. This should have been over a long time ago."

This prompted an angry statement e-mailed out from Michael Steele, who accused the Dems of trying to short-circuit the process in Minnesota:

The people of Minnesota expect and deserve a fair election process that ensures every valid vote is counted and counted only once. As it stands now, there are thousands of absentee ballots that have not been counted and potentially hundreds more that have been counted twice. Instead of attempting to short circuit election law, the Senate Majority Leader should focus on the out of control spending going on in Washington. Once the recount is completed, I fully expect Senator Coleman to be where he was on election night: in the lead. When that happens, we will welcome back a senator who values fiscal responsibility, lower taxes and will not vote to saddle future generations with unprecedented debt. I join my fellow Republicans in standing firmly behind Norm Coleman and his pursuit to ensure no Minnesota voter is disenfranchised."

And the spin keeps going in Minnesota, too.

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Brian Melendez, the state Democratic chairman in Minnesota, just gave TPM this statement in response to Norm Coleman's comments that a do-over election could be necessary:

Former Senator Coleman's sudden interest in a "do-over" election is astonishing both for its ignorance of the law and for its ignorance of political reality -- or at least his feigned ignorance. First, the people of Minnesota went to the polls in November and elected a new United States senator; it's bad enough that Norm Coleman has been aggressively trying to disenfranchise so many of them throughout the recount and now during his election-contest trial, but now he wants to disenfranchise all of them.

Norm Coleman is a lawyer and he knows better. I hope that Governor Pawlenty will quickly disown Coleman's shameless scheme for a back-door appointment that will get him back the seat that he couldn't hold on to in a free and fair election.

Coleman has every right under the law to contest his recount loss, but he and his spinmeisters need to show some respect to Minnesotans' intelligence by acknowledging the fairness of our justice system and not fabricating scenarios that disregard Minnesota law.

Zesty and dated rock tended to accompany speakers here at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Creedence Clearwater Revival "Down on the Corner" for John Bolton, Smashmouth's cover of "I'm a Believer" for Mike Pence, early Beatles--"Love Me Do"--at the Building a Conservative Hispanic Coalition seminar and Kenny Loggins hit from the Top Gun soundtrack, "Danger Zone". If Lee Greenwood is here, I haven't heard him.

In addition to the speakers and seminars, there's a giant exhibition area where different conservative outfits are peddling their wares. My favorite bumper sitcker for sale was "Obama Bin Lyin'. Impeach Him Now." I picked up an "It's OK to be Ex Gay" button. There are rows and rows of conservative talk show hosts broadcasting from here and a bloggers row. There are pro life groups and pro gun groups and anti global warming groups. I was handed an ice cream sandwich by a woman dressed as a polar bear. When I asked her what she was advocating she lifted her mask and cheerfully told me that the polar bears were fine and that conservative principles would do more for the environment than government.

We have some videos coming that will, if you haven't watched any of the proceedings, give you a flavor of the conservative movement as it deals with its exile.

A couple of thoughts.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that most people here think that what cost them the election was not adherence to conservative principles but deviance from them. In this view, Republicans were too squishy and moderate. They carried the weight of Congressional scandals, bloated budgets and GOP-sponsored social initiatives like No Child Left Behind and the expansion of Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit. There's not a lot of soul searching about policy.

I was surprised by the session on building a Hispanic Conservative Majority. It wasn't that well attended but those conservatives who went got to hear a blistering attack on the anti-immigration tone and policies of the Republican party and a passionate plea for an immigration policy that doesn't revolve around deporting illegal immigrants. If there's going to be a rethinking of Republican orthodoxy maybe it'll be here.

In general, though, the faithful are sticking to their creed. When Tucker Carlson, the conservative commentator, suggested that conservatives ought to start more New York Times media outlets of their own, dedicated to reporting, he got jeers. He tried to make it clear to the crowd that he thought the Times was liberal and distorting but they were at least dedicated to fact gathering. This small bit concession to the Times was too much for some in the crowd.

More later when we get the videos.

The Coleman campaign may have just given away the store on a very important point in their challenge to the Minnesota election results -- conceding that missing ballots from the recount that were still included in the final numbers did in fact exist.

During the recount, a deep-blue Minneapolis precinct came up with over 130 less ballots than were counted on Election Night, costing Al Franken a net 46 votes. The city eventually concluded that an envelope full of ballots labeled "1 of 5" was missing. After it wasn't recovered, the state canvassing board agreed to revert to the Election Night total for this precinct, rather than disenfranchise these voters.

The Coleman campaign vowed to contest it in court. Their position had been that there was no evidence the ballots existed, citing an earlier hypothesis by the city that ballots might have counted twice by the machines on Election Night -- which the city had quickly discarded when the precinct roster nearly matched the number of Election Night votes. And even if they do exist, the Coleman camp has still said they can't be included in the recount.

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The Dusty Foggo story has never reflected well on Porter Goss -- the man who, as CIA director, gave Foggo the number 3 job at the agency. But it looks like we didn't know the half of it.

Congressional Quarterly has a juicy scoop:

Kyle "Dusty" Foggo's CIA dossier included allegations that he was sharing a woman with a suspected Russian mole, according to a top former spy agency official and other sources.

CIA Director Porter J. Goss knew about the allegation when he hired Foggo to be the agency's executive director, its third highest official, an aide said today.

But Merrell Moorhead, an aide to Goss at the CIA from 2004 to 2006, said CIA security officials later withdrew that and other serious allegations about Foggo's record and "gave him a clean bill of health."

One former senior CIA official told CQ:
Everybody knew about him and Felix," said a former senior CIA official, who talked about Foggo on condition of anonymity. "It's scandalous that Goss hired him.

This news jibes with a report yesterday by the national security reporter Laura Rozen that Goss was aware of problems in Foggo's counter-intelligence file when he hired him.

Ben Ginsberg, the Coleman spokesman/lawyer who has held colorful press conferences attacking the court, the reliability of the election results, and just about everything under the sun that looked bad for Norm Coleman, is no longer seeking to actually work for Norm in the courtroom.

Ginsberg, who was on George W. Bush's legal team during the Florida recount in 2000, has been holding his daily press conferences since the beginning of this trial, billing himself as a Coleman attorney. But it was only last week that he filed his motion for admission pro hac vice -- the filing that an out-of-state lawyer is supposed to make in order to appear before a local court.

Just today, Team Coleman submitted this motion to withdraw the request, which hadn't yet been granted: "Mr. Ginsberg will not participate in the trial and no longer seeks the court's permission to do so."

The real question now is whether Ginsberg will still continue to hold his amazing press conferences -- for example, yesterday he made a now-debunked charge that a heavily Dem county had illegally included 300 bad absentee ballots -- or whether he's now out of this case completely. We could find out tonight.

Just when we thought we were out, they pull us back in.

We thought we were done with the topic of George Will and climate change. But now we've gotten an advanced look at Will's latest column, set to run tomorrow in the Washington Post and in syndication. And it amounts to a stubborn defense of the amazing global warming denialist column he published earlier this month, that was ripped apart by just about everyone and their mother -- including us.

Will's new effort is framed as a response to a New York Times story, by science reporter Andrew Revkin, from earlier this week, which asserted that Will's earlier column, published February 15, was guilty of "inaccuracies and overstatements," in the view of experts. (That Revkin story itself provoked some blogospheric ire by equating Will's out-and-out distortions with some minor exaggerations on the other side by Al Gore -- but that's a whole other story.)

In the new column, Will makes two central claims, one directed narrowly at Revkin, the other more broadly at critics of the February 15 column.

First, he suggests that Revkin is guilty of sloppy journalism, noting that the Times writer doesn't name the experts who judged the February 15 column inaccurate, and adding that Revkin contacted him for comment only late in the afternoon of the day before his story ran.

Revkin didn't immediately respond to an email from TPMmuckraker seeking a response to those charges.

Second, Will stands by the substance of the February 15 column, maintaining, in the case of the key factual dispute, that he had accurately reported the findings of a respected climate research center on the question of sea-ice levels. Though the center has since put out a statement disavowing Will's use of its data, Will claims that last month it posted confirmation of that very data on its web site -- and, getting all bloggy, includes a link.

We'll leave it to others to parse the finer points of this defense -- though it's immediately noticeable that Will doesn't mention that the center's confirmation of its findings notes that the data concerns global sea ice levels, rather than northern hemispheric levels. Global levels, it says, "may not be the most relevant indicator."

But after Will and Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt declined to answer TPMmuckraker's questions about the column -- leaving that task to the paper's ombudsman, who cited the paper's "multi-layer editing process" -- it's certainly intriguing that Will has chosen to wade back into the muck.