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Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, has authored a bill that, among other things, would prohibit nondisclosure agreements between abusive officials and their victims. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

In the Hopper: Nixing nondisclosures; killer kids; gun bills

Nixing nondisclosures: Though it no longer contains a provision forbidding the Legislature from financing sexual harassment settlements, a bill moving through the Senate would prohibit nondisclosure agreements between abusive officials and their victims.

It would also require public disclosure of all harassment settlements paid out by the Legislature, the state’s executive branch and any local unit of government.

Senate File 2491 also requests those disclosures from the University of Minnesota. However, because the university is constitutionally autonomous, the bill cannot order such disclosures, said the bill’s author, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester.

Her bill does not currently make any demands of the Judicial Branch, but Nelson said she is open to that change and plans to look into it.

Taxpayer dollars should not be used as “hush money” in sexual harassment cases, Nelson said. “This is how we are going to get the light of day, transparency and accountability in the public sphere,” Nelson said.

While she does not know how many times nondisclosure agreements involving elected officials and state workers have been put in place, Nelson is confident that it happens “too often,” she said.

“Bad behavior gets swept under the rug—there is a settlement and no one can speak of it,” the senator said. “When it comes to using public funds and public dollars, we ought not to allow that.”

Nelson presented her bill to the State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee on March 1. Its GOP majority passed it in a divided voice vote and relayed it onto Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy.

Before presenting her bill, Nelson extracted a provision that would have stopped taxpayer dollars from being used in harassment settlements. She said she was persuaded that the provision could eliminate victims’ only available remedy.

Annette Meeks, CEO of the right-leaning Freedom Foundation, spoke for the bill. She told committee members that in rare instances where public officials are found culpable of sexual misconduct, the “system hides these settlements.”

“Why can this happen? Because government can,” Meeks said. “It’s very simple: Under current law there is no reason to report it. And when no reason to report, it doesn’t happen.”

Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, offered an amendment to pull local units of government out of the bill and focus only on the legislative and executive branches. That was shot-down 5-4 in a straight party-line vote.

The Senate Judiciary committee has not yet scheduled the bill for a hearing. Its companion, House File 3034, authored by Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, was introduced in Feb. 26 and referred to the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee. It has had no hearing.


Killer kids: Legislators were offered two options for fixing a life-without-parole sentence for juvenile killers, which retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Anderson has called “patently unconstitutional.”

In December, the Commission on Juvenile Sentencing for Heinous Crimes wrapped up a series of hearings and wrote a report, which members presented to the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee last week.

Commission members said the Legislature could abolish a mandatory life sentence for juveniles, which remains on the books. It could then substitute a life sentence with eligibility for parole after a set number of years, they said.

Alternatively, lawmakers could keep the current penalty in place—but only after writing into law complicated guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller vs. Alabama decision. That 2012 ruling all but abolishes life without parole sentences for juveniles as cruel and unusual punishment.

Miller allows life without parole for some, but only those whose crimes show irreparable corruption or permanent incorrigibility, according to the commission’s report. The Miller decision lays out a laundry list of factors that must be considered before courts make that determination.

Retired Ramsey County District Court Judge Kathleen Gearin was among commission members who presented findings to the Public Safety committee on Feb. 28. “You need to do something,” she said. “But the choice is yours because you are the policymakers.”

Kelly Mitchell, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, said Minnesota is one of eight states that have yet to rewrite statutes to reflect Miller. Minnesota’s Heinous Crimes Act retains life without parole for juveniles convicted of premeditated, first-degree murder, she said.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom recommended abolishing life without parole for juveniles. He suggested creating a life sentence with review for possible release after 25 years. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom recommended abolishing life without parole for juveniles. He suggested creating a life sentence with review for possible release after 25 years. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom recommended abolishing life without parole for juveniles. He suggested creating a life sentence with review for possible release after 25 years, an idea supported by the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, where Backstrom is a board member.

That would be less than the 30-year review provided for adults sentenced to life with the possibility of release, reflecting the association’s belief that “juveniles are fundamentally different than adults,” Backstrom said.

Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, also sat on the commission. As a lawmaker, O’Neill said she feels ill-equipped to support legislation that would force her to decide which juveniles are permanently corrupt. “I am just not comfortable declaring that over someone’s life,” she said.

On Monday, Rep. Kathy Lohmer, Public Safety’s vice-chair, rolled out House File 3368, a bipartisan bill that abolishes life without parole for youthful offenders and creates a 25-year review period for first-degree murderers sentenced to life under the Heinous Crimes law. Her bill was referred to Public Safety.

By happenstance, the Feb. 28 committee hearing commenced just hours after the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered convicted killer Brian Lee Flowers, 26, to be resentenced.

Flowers got a mandatory life sentence without parole after murdering a mother and son when he was 16. The Supreme Court last week ordered his case remanded to district court for resentencing in line with current case law. It gave the lower court discretion to decide whether Flowers’ consecutive life sentences should be retained.


Gun bills: After a DFL lawmaker invoked an obscure House rule to force a Public Safety committee hearing on two firearms bills, the panel’s GOP majority found a way to put them indefinitely on ice.

Before that happened, there were several hours of testimony during which advocates and opponents were vented their views.

The bills were introduced a year ago by Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, a Ramsey County prosecutor, but were never heard in 2017. By invoking House Rule 4.31, Pinto forced a hearing on March 1.

HF 1669 would have instituted mandatory background checks on all firearms purchases, including private sales—though with some exceptions for interfamily firearms transfers and the like.

HF 1605 would have allowed families and law enforcement to petition for gun-violence protective orders. It would allow guns to be temporarily removed if someone is “a significant danger to other people or themselves,” Pinto said.

Both bills were backed by law enforcement, health officials and violence-prevention advocates who depicted Pinto’s bills as common-sense legislation that would save lives.

“The behaviors we see from some people often leave us concerned and lacking the tools to intervene, as we see a situation build to what, at times, becomes a tragic ending,” said Ramsey County Sheriff Jack Serier, testifying for the protective-order bill.

Andrew Kiragu, Hennepin County Medical Center’s interim chief of pediatrics, testified for background checks. He said they would help curb the “death and devastating, life-changing injuries” he sees while caring for children with gunshot wounds.

Opponents depicted the bills as both ineffectual and a threat to liberty. In the case of the protective order, gun owners could be deprived of their property rights without due process. Pinto disputed that, saying the emergency ex parte orders envisioned by his legislation mirror existing law, which grants them in some domestic violence cases.

Rob Doar, political director for the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, was unconvinced. “This bill is confiscation without due process, period,” he said.

Joe Olson, a professor emeritus at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law and a National Rifle Association’s board member, testified against both bills. Neither tackles what he regards as the biggest issue related to gun violence—the failure of officials “to force” the mentally ill to seek treatment.

“No background check can stop an evil mind or reveal undiagnosed insanity,” Olson said. “It simply can’t happen.”

In the end, both bills were tabled by motions from Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin. The committee voted 9-7 (with Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, joining all Democrats) to lay aside HF 1669. HF 1605 was tabled in a straight, 10-6 party-line vote.

Afterwards, Public Safety committee Chair Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, said he did not immediately know if the two bills will be reconsidered later. “You never know,” he said.

For their part, Pinto and his DFL colleagues vowed to press on for gun safety legislation. “This needs to happen,” Pinto said. “And it needs to happen now.”

About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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