Senate Ethics panel deadlocks over Michel complaint (again)

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The Minnesota Senate Ethics Subcommittee is still deadlocked over whether Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, violated the Senate’s code of conduct in the way he responded to the affair between former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and fired Senate staffer Michael Brodkorb.

The panel can’t decide whether Michel brought dishonor and disrepute to the Senate, whether to dismiss the complaint, whether to continue investigating or whether to delay the investigation until any pending lawsuits are resolved.

The subcommittee is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans. That means bipartisan support is needed for the panel to decide anything.

“We have deadlocked on every one of the questions in front of us,” Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, announced near the end of today’s two-hour hearing. She chairs the panel.

The subcommittee continued to debate the merits of a complaint brought by Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. Pappas contends Michel misled the public about when he first knew of the affair between Koch and Brodkorb. She also said Michel should have acted faster when he learned about the affair. At one point during the hearing, Pappas was asked whether she would be willing to sit down with Michel to work out their differences. She told reporters after the hearing that she would not.

“I was pretty offended at the idea that a public lie could be just dismissed with a private cup of coffee,” Pappas said. “It was a public activity that he did that was misleading. My complaint was public and it should be resolved in a public way.”

The panel is scheduled to meet again later tonight but it seems unlikely that they’ll reach any agreement. The two DFL members of the committee complained that their actions are being impeded by a pending lawsuit by Brodkorb. Fischbach announced at the beginning of the hearing that she wanted to limit testimony to protect the Senate and its members.

Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, said at several points during the hearing that he would have liked to ask additional questions of Michel but felt he couldn’t because of the lawsuit.

“We are handcuffed effectively because we can’t ask the right questions because we’re worried about something off in the future,” Harrington said.

The question of what could and couldn’t be said in public has been hanging over the hearing. Fischbach unilaterally canceled the first hearing after the Senate’s outside counsel expressed concern that public discussion about Michel’s conduct could put the Senate in legal jeopardy.

Brodkorb and his attorneys are preparing to sue the Senate for gender discrimination, invasion of privacy and defamation.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said at one point that she felt that she had a conflict of interest because of the limitations imposed by the threatened lawsuit.

“The conversations we’ve been having here and outside of here about the other litigation and its implications creates a conflict of interest of us as we serve on this committee,” Sheran said during the hearing. “I think it’s influencing all of us.”

Those statements prompted Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, to make a motion to delay the investigation until all legal matters are resolved.

“I think it’s probably inappropriate to move forward on this hearing until this other action is taken care of,” Ingebrigtsen said.

The motion failed on a 2-2 vote. Members of the panel expressed concern that they may not be able to reconcile their differences, which would mean the complaint against Michel would continue to stand.

Michel is standing firm that he has done nothing wrong. He recommended the committee dismiss the complaint and revise Senate Human Resources policies. He repeated his contention that the complaint is political.

“I believe this about partisan politics and this is about retaliation and this isn’t about ethics and this isn’t about the honor of the senate,” Michel said.

Update:

It would be unusual for the Ethics Committee to fail to act on a complaint against a member. The Minnesota Legislative Reference Library says there were three instances where an Ethics Committee failed to act on a complaint (Note: There were also several instances where several members resigned before the Ethics Committee could act):

In the Minnesota Senate, the Ethics Committee failed to act on a complaint against Sen. Harold Finn, DFL-Cass Lake, because they couldn’t get live testimony from witnesses. Finn was convicted of theft against the Leech Lake Band.

In 2003, the House Ethics Committee deadlocked on a complaint against Rep. Arlon Lindner, R-Corcoran. The complaint claimed he made derogatory remarks against homesexuals and inaccurate portrayals of the Holocaust and AIDS in Africa.

In 2000, the House Ethics Committee voted to defer proceedings on a complaint against Rep. Jim Rostberg, R-Isanti, until criminal proceedings against him were finished. Rostberg declined to run for re-election so the committee did not act further.

Here’s a look at past Ethics Complaints (courtesy of the Legislative Reference Library):

Leg Ethics List

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