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Will Koch matter spawn an ethics complaint?

Briana Bierschbach//January 4, 2012

Will Koch matter spawn an ethics complaint?

Briana Bierschbach//January 4, 2012

Sen. Geoff Michel was deputy majority leader when he was told that Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch was having an inappropriate relationship with a staff member. Both have since stepped down from their leadership positions, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk has called for further investigation. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

In its first year at the helm of the chamber, the Senate Republican caucus has faced two ethics complaints and could be looking at a third in the wake of former Majority Leader Amy Koch’s sudden resignation after being confronted about an inappropriate relationship with a male staffer who reported to her.

The scandal has shaken the ranks of the leadership in the caucus and thrown several key members into the spotlight for their actions. Whether it should engender a further ethics inquiry is a question that has divided politicos on both sides of the aisle. Most Republicans, and some DFLers, believe the matter was effectively settled by Koch’s resignation from leadership, a move that mooted the possibility of continued impropriety.

One former DFL legislator, a self-proclaimed agnostic on whether any investigation should proceed (“I just don’t know enough about the situation,” the source said), pointed to risks involved in any DFL push for an ethics complaint. For one thing, it isn’t clear that there is any meaningful remedy to be gained by it, the former legislator said, noting that Koch has stepped down and that any questions about the actions of senators on the former leadership team have been relegated to the background by their subsequent resignation from those posts at last week’s Senate GOP caucus meeting. A complaint that is viewed as a political fishing expedition could engender similarly political future reprisals, the source added.

But conversely, much remains unclear about the matter and how it was treated within the Senate GOP, and there are elements in both parties that believe the matter requires further action. While many observers doubt that any Senate Republican will bring forward a complaint, one thing is clear: The mere fact that Koch stepped down does not mean that senators cannot call her previous actions into question.

Senate rules open-ended

The Minnesota Constitution gives each chamber the power to punish its members for “disorderly behavior.” According to the Senate’s permanent rules, “Improper conduct includes conduct that … betrays the public trust, or that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor or disrepute.”

That’s the basis on which one DFL senator familiar with the ethics process — who wished to remain anonymous — says a complaint could be filed in the aftermath of the Koch scandal.

“It harms the reputation of the Senate,” the senator said. “Any number of aspects of the conflict could be considered to have accomplished that. Just having an inappropriate relationship with someone outside of your marriage, well, that’s your own business. But when that happens in the Senate with someone over whom you have direct supervision, anyone in the private business world knows that’s a no-no.”

Bakk leads charge for investigation

DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk also pointed to the damaged reputation of the Minnesota Senate in a recent letter to newly elected Majority Leader Dave Senjem, in which he encouraged Senjem to act as soon as possible to resolve any lingering ethical and legal questions surrounding the Koch episode.
“The integrity and honor of the Minnesota Senate have been seriously called into question by recent events, and right now our first priority must be restoring the public’s trust in our institution,” Bakk wrote. “I urge you, as the new majority leader, to take this responsibility very seriously and ensure that all ethical and legal questions surrounding the recent allegations concerning Senate members’ conduct are addressed in a transparent and expeditious manner.”

The other 2011 Senate ethics complaints involved a staff communication from the office of GOP Sen. Scott Newman that suggested he would not meet with a constituent group that had not supported his campaign and a tweet by GOP Sen. Gretchen Hoffman that was alleged to mischaracterize floor remarks by DFL Sen. Barb Goodwin. The ethics committee found no probable cause to proceed in the first case and directed Hoffman to apologize in the second case.

Potential scope unclear

An ethics complaint could also involve looking at how other Senate leaders handled the Koch situation. In particular, Bakk wants further inquiry into the role of Sen. Geoff Michel, who was deputy majority leader when he was told that Koch was having an inappropriate relationship with a male staffer. At a news conference held by GOP leaders the day after Koch resigned, Michel indicated the first complaint about the relationship had been received a couple of weeks earlier.

But the caucus’ former chief of staff, Cullen Sheehan, later discredited that timeline when he told Minnesota Public Radio that he told Michel about the relationship in late September. Michel could be investigated over the relatively long period between his learning of the allegations and his bringing them to other senators on the leadership team, sources say.

“I just think there are some real serious questions about how Sen. Michel handled this,” Bakk said last week. “And before we can move on, I think we’ve got to get some answers to that. I would like Sen. Senjem to investigate this himself. I don’t want to turn this into a partisan thing.”

One former Senate staffer agrees with Bakk, saying the tenor of any investigation will depend on whether the complaint is bipartisan or something seen as a political move from the DFL Senate caucus. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen was one of the first Republican senators to say publicly that he harbored lingering questions about the Koch scandal. He also sits on the Senate Rules Committee’s subcommittee on ethics. Now Ingebrigtsen says that someone could bring a complaint forward but that he personally would “like to stay clear of that.”

Ingebrigtsen, who was appointed to the caucus’ last assistant majority leader spot on Tuesday, adds that his questions about the scandal have now been answered. “It’s been dealt with, and we’ve moved on,” he said, “and Sen, Koch stepped down from her position. It’s a single senator issue. I have no further questions.”

Senjem struck a similar tone when he was elected majority leader, noting that it was “wonderful” to have Koch back with the caucus during a meeting last week and adding that he hoped she would return next session. His comments appeared to send a strong signal that he doesn’t wish to pursue an investigation and would rather move on from the incident.

According to Senate rules, an ethics complaint can be filed only during session. The ethics subcommittee must act within 30 days of a complaint and can start an investigation, determine that there is no probable cause to investigate or defer action altogether. Cal Ludeman, secretary of the Minnesota Senate, would not comment on the prospects of an ethics investigation.

There’s no defined level of specificity needed to file an ethics complaint, but the senator close to the ethics process said the more details provided in the complaint, the more likely it will warrant an investigation to reach a probable cause determination about its merits.

But a detailed complaint could also complicate things. The Senate staffer with whom Koch had a relationship has not been publicly named. If a staffer is named in the ethics complaint, that person could be subpoenaed to go before the ethics committee. That could potentially bring the Senate into more legal battles.

One GOP attorney, however, warns that pursuing any kind of ethics complaint could diminish the Senate DFL caucus’ current upper hand in the realm of public opinion. “I would be careful if I were the DFLers,” the attorney said. “The public might start to become sympathetic with Koch if they pursue this kind of a witch hunt.”

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