ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota Senate ethics hearing stemming from a sexual affair that brought down the Senate’s majority leader devolved Friday into a testy episode of can’t ask, can’t tell.
Two Democrats and two Republicans on the Senate’s ethics committee deadlocked over whether to dismiss a complaint against Republican Sen. Geoff Michel, move forward with a deeper investigation or revisit the issue after threatened legal action is concluded. The specter of lawsuits made most questions for Michel off limits.
After more than two hours and a pair of 2-2 votes — Republicans unsuccessfully moved for dismissal; Democrats failed in a bid to press ahead — the committee recessed until later Friday. Members never reconvened and gave no date for another hearing.
Michel wasn’t party to the affair but he took the lead role in addressing it internally and informing the public about allegations of infidelity against then-Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and a high-level GOP staffer.
Democrats accused Michel of deception for supplying an inaccurate timeline of events and for letting three months lapse between learning of the affair and taking decisive action. Michel argued his main aim was to protect the interest of whistleblowers and things he said were deliberately “imprecise” but not misleading.
“We were cleaning this up, not covering it up,” Michel said, criticizing the ethics complaint as politically skewed “Monday morning quarterbacking.”
His lawyer, Bob Maher, told the panel that the only people who tarnished the Senate’s reputation were the two involved the affair.
No ethics complaint was filed against Koch, who is serving out the remainder of her Senate term. The staff member she carried on a relationship with, former Senate GOP communications director Michael Brodkorb, was fired in December. Brodkorb has signaled he will sue for wrongful termination.
Sen. Sandy Pappas, the Democratic lawmaker who filed the complaint, wants Michel to publicly apologize for not moving fast enough once staff members informed him of the relationship and for telling reporters that it was dealt with in a matter of weeks. In fact, a Senate whistleblower said Michel was informed months before anything became public.
“The false and misleading statements provided by Senator Michel constitute a breach of the public trust and are unbecoming of a Minnesota senator,” Pappas said in her opening remarks.
Republicans on the committee stood by Michel as making the best of a difficult situation. Democrats said they couldn’t overlook the conflicting information he provided in the heat of the scandal.
Against that backdrop, the hearing sputtered through often heated back-and-forth.
No new details came to light. Ethics Committee Chairwoman Michelle Fischbach, a Republican, repeatedly warned committee members against delving too far into the affair and the fallout due to concern it would give Brodkorb ammunition in court.
“Our hands are tied because of pending litigation,” Fischbach said.
An outside attorney hired by the Senate was in the room and a couple of times conferred with an in-house lawyer seated at Fischbach’s side. Most of the Senate GOP caucus sat in solidarity in chairs behind Michel, although Koch was not present.
Michel, who voluntarily gave up his post as deputy majority leader, is not running for re-election in the fall.
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