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Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, testifies before the House Subcommittee on Workplace Safety and Respect on March 20. Her House File 3728 would create a Citizen Council on Legislative Ethics to serve as an outside advisory panel to assess sexual harassment complaints and advise the Legislature on ways to respond. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, testifies before the House Subcommittee on Workplace Safety and Respect on March 20. Her House File 3728 would create a Citizen Council on Legislative Ethics to serve as an outside advisory panel to assess sexual harassment complaints and advise the Legislature on ways to respond. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

In the Hopper: Sexual harassment; felons voting; protecting cops

Sexual harassment: Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, wants a citizen’s panel to assess sexual harassment complaints at the Capitol and make recommendations for remedying them to the House and Senate Ethics Committees.

Murphy’s bill, House File 3728, was presented March 20 to the House Subcommittee on Workplace Safety and Respect, a division of the House Rules Committee. It was one of three pieces of legislation that have been presented to the subcommittee since February.

The subcommittee’s chair, House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said she expects Murphy’s will be the last bill the subcommittee will hear this session.

The bill creates a Citizen Council on Legislative Ethics. That eight-member panel would consist of two appointees from each of the four House and Senate caucus leaders. Murphy said she envisions it consisting of experts in workplace sexual harassment issues. Former legislators would be ineligible for appointment.

She said the council would develop and maintain a harassment reporting system that lobbyists and other Capitol-goers could use to lodge complaints of sexual harassment or other bad behavior.

Questions such as whether meetings would be public would be determined by members of the advisory council itself, according to Patrick McCormack, the Rules Committee’s nonpartisan research analyst.

McCormack said the draft bill contains some ambiguities. It is unclear, he said, whether it would only assess reports received and issue probable cause findings to the House or Senate Ethics Committees, or if it would conduct complete investigations and offer disciplinary recommendations. “The draft suggests they could do either,” he said.

McCormack added that, should the bill become law, it likely would necessitate changes to House and Senate rules to dovetail them with the council’s new role.

Murphy said she would work with Peppin and others to smooth out the bill’s rough edges if it moves forward.

Cathy Gnatek is a retired former partner at the Dorsey and Whitney law firm who suggested the bill to Murphy, along with retired IT executive Rebecca Larson. Gnatek called it a commonsense measure to help fix the Capitol’s harassment-reporting system, which she called “broken.”

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, called Murphy’s bill superior even to her own March 12 proposal for a task force, which would study sexual harassment at the Capitol and make legislative recommendations for stopping it.

“I think it is the best, most workable thing we have seen,” Hortman said.

The subcommittee met again on Monday, taking testimony from eight employment law and workplace harassment experts. Two officials from Minnesota Management and Budget also spoke to describe findings and recommendations for an executive-branch sexual-harassment report ordered by Gov. Mark Dayton and released in January.

Both Dayton and MMB Commissioner Myron Frans have suggested that a central harassment-reporting office contemplated in the report could be made available to both the legislative and judiciary branches.

That resource-sharing idea was not broached by MMB’s representatives at Monday’s meeting, and no subcommittee members explored it.

The first legislative deadline expired on March 22 for passage of bills within their house of origin. The next deadline, to clear bills that met the other chamber’s deadline, hits at midnight March 29.

However, like the House’s various finance committees, Rules is exempt from those deadlines. So the three bills heard by its subcommittee still have a shot at passage this year, if put to a vote.

 

Elizer Darris, an ACLU Minnesota organizer, testifies on March 22 for a bill to restore felons’ voting rights immediately after their prison release. Darris was convicted of first-degree murder after a 1999 homicide committed when he was 15. He has worked for political campaigns but won’t be eligible to vote, under current law, until his probation ends in 2025. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Elizer Darris, an ACLU Minnesota organizer, testifies on March 22 for a bill to restore felons’ voting rights immediately after their prison release. Darris was convicted of first-degree murder after a 1999 homicide committed when he was 15. He has worked for political campaigns but won’t be eligible to vote, under current law, until his probation ends in 2025. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Felons voting: A bill to restored felons’ right to vote upon release attracted one GOP committee members’ support, but that failed to override a motion to lay it on the table.

The bill, House File 951, first introduced in 2017, was granted a hearing last week before the Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee. Its chief author is Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, a former felon whose burglary conviction was nullified through a “pardon extraordinary” by Gov. Al Quie and the state Board of Pardons in 1982.

“We are expecting [felons] to be good, outstanding citizens,” Dehn said. “One of the basic impacts of being a good citizen is participating in voting.” People who vote, he contended, are less likely to re-offend.

Dehn’s bill was supported by former Associate Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson. “I believe that it is a just and good policy to restore the right to vote,” Anderson said at the March 22 hearing.

Elizer Darris, an ACLU of Minnesota organizer, also testified. Convicted of first-degree murder in 1999 when he was 15 years old, Darris was released from prison in 2014. He has worked on some political campaigns since his release, but cannot vote. His rights won’t be restored until his parole ends in 2025.

“I am invisible to society,” Darris said. “In one of the most fundamental ways, I am a ghost — a non-voter.”

Dehn’s idea was met with skepticism from some committee Republicans. Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, signaled that he could back the bill, but only if it excluded murderers. Murder victims, he said, will never have their voting ability restored.

“If you amend this bill to address that portion for felony murder, then you have got my attention,” he said. “But until that is addressed, I won’t support it.”

However, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, did side with Dehn and even signed on as a co-author. In an interview Monday, he said the movement toward restoring felons’ voting rights is gaining momentum. Giving ex-cons a chance at redemption is “a conservative idea,” he said.

“I think the bill deserves a fair vetting, a fair hearing and a chance for members to place a stake in the ground on where they sit on this issue,” Zerwas said.

They didn’t quite get that chance. The committee’s chair, Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, noted that a felons’ voting rights ban is written into the Minnesota Constitution. The bill has issues to resolved, he said, and he motioned to table it.

The move to table passed, 8-7, with Zerwas joining the committee’s six Democrats in voting not to lay it aside.

 

Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, has authored a bill barring local governments from disarming police officers who are in good standing. Grossell once was shot in the upper arm while serving as police chief in Blackduck, Minnesota, in 2001. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, has authored a bill barring local governments from disarming police officers who are in good standing. Grossell once was shot in the upper arm while serving as police chief in Blackduck, Minnesota, in 2001. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Protecting cops: Two bills aimed at protecting cops — one by increasing penalties on their assailants, the other by forbidding local governments from disarming officers — were passed by the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee last week.

The committee’s chair, Rep. Brian Johnson, authored House File 3610, which would make it assaulting a cop a felony regardless whether the officer is injured. Current state law already makes it a felony to do any harm to an officer in a fight.

Johnson, who has a law enforcement background, said the bill stems from concerns he has harbored for years. He said he was once assaulted by a large, naked man who was high on the drug PCB. While he was not injured, he said, the assailant tried to grab his gun in the tussle.

“He was literally trying to kill me and my partner, and he could not be charged with that because I wasn’t injured,” Johnson said. “This bill changes that.”

Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, said the bill’s intent is good, but worried about unintended consequences. Raising the penalty where no harm is committed, he said, means that a no-harm assault would carry the same penalty as an assault in which a cop gets hurt. That could strip away incentives not to hurt a cop, he said.

Johnson said that anyone willing to attack an officer is a clear danger to the public at large, he said. “That’s why I think it deserves the higher [penalty],” he said. The committee passed the bill in a lopsided voice vote.

It now goes to Ways and Means, which as of this writing had yet to schedule it for a hearing.

Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, authored the other police-protection bill. Grossell once was shot in the upper arm, shattering his humerus, while serving as a young police chief in Blackduck, Minn., in 2001.

His bill, House File 3611 prohibits any local government or official from disarming a police officer in good standing who neither is under investigation or being disciplined. Grossell said he offered the bill in part because of “recent statements made.”

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, who voted yes along with all other members of the committee, said Grossell’s allusion to “recent statements” related to policy plank in the 2017 mayoral run of Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis. Dehn is on the Public Safety committee.

During that race, Dehn suggested most police officers could do without guns, perhaps resorting to other less lethal weapons for protection. He did not openly espouse that idea again on March 22, but did respond to Grossell.

“I understand what your bill is trying to do,” Dehn said. “But a conversation about peace officers’ use of force and side arms is healthy. And I look forward to continuing it in the future.”

The Grossell bill passed through Public Safety in a unanimous voice vote. It was heard again Tuesday in House Government Operations and Elections Policy, which passed it with another unanimous voice vote. The bill now heads to the House floor.

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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