A surprise visit to the Capitol last week by former Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, has one of his sexual-harassment accusers threatening to file for a restraining order. But Cornish says the visit might be his last.
“I really just don’t have any plans on going back at all,” Cornish said Monday. “I was up there as a citizen advocate, one time only.”
He made that declaration just before being told that his visit has lobbyist Sarah Walker, who has alleged he repeatedly harassed her, contemplating a restraining order against him.
Walker was one of several women who accused Cornish of harassment last year. Speaking anonymously to the press at first, she said Cornish repeatedly propositioned her, once pushing her up against a wall and attempting to kiss her. She issued a public statement with her name attached after Cornish, under intense pressure, announced his resignation.
Walker’s lobbying clients include the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, according to the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. That group is at odds with Cornish’s stance on the gun-control legislation. Cornish cited that legislation as the reason he showed up last week.
Walker said Cornish did not approach her to discuss any bills last week. Nonetheless, she was “deeply concerned” that his visit prompted no official response from House leadership.
Their “deafening silence” sends a bad message, Walker said. “When you make a complaint, there is very little to zero recourse and you are still going to have to face your harasser,” Walker said. “I think that sends a chilling message, throughout the Capitol, that there are not any real ramifications.”
House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, was asked on March 29 about Cornish’s visit. The House was just leaving for its Easter break when she was interviewed on the House floor.
As a private citizen, Peppin said, Cornish has a citizen’s legal right laws to attend Capitol committee hearings. “The only recourse anyone would really have is to report it to Capitol security or get a restraining order or some other legal means,” Peppin said.
Still, Peppin acknowledged that his appearance might have been uncomfortable for women who regard him as a harasser. “I would hope he would be sensitive to that,” Peppin said. “I would hope that he would maybe distance himself from those who feel uncomfortable around him.”
Cornish declined to comment on either Walker’s or Peppin’s statements.
A recent report based on a House-commissioned investigation into his conduct was released in mid-March, but its findings were not disclosed. A summary report said only that two unidentified women had made allegations before ticking off a list of lessons learned from the episode.
Walker would not say if she has consulted an attorney in contemplation of court action. “But in terms of what can be done,” Walker said, “I think the reality is to consider a restraining order—which I will be considering.”
‘Disgusting and horrific’
A photo of Cornish taken during a March 27 House Taxes committee hearing is at the center of the ruckus. It shows Cornish—blurred but easily identifiable—standing in the background of a “selfie” image taken by Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley.
Maye Quade was among the women who leveled harassment charges against Cornish last year; she said he had made off-color comments to her in texts. Maye Quade said Thursday that while she knew Cornish was in the hearing room on March 27, she did not know he was in the photo until she prepared to post it online last Wednesday.
“I didn’t think he would be standing 10 feet behind me,” she said.
Cornish is aware of the photo. But he says he did not know that it was being taken. Nor did he know when he arrived for the hearing that Maye Quade would be present, he said. “I just walked in to talk to a couple of legislators that I knew were in there,” Cornish said.
Maye Quade is not a Taxes Committee member but did have a bill on the agenda—House File 3976—which exempts from sales taxes most food prepared for nonprofit programs. It was laid over that day for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill.
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin re-posted her image on Facebook on March 28, calling it “absolutely disgusting and horrific.” He called on legislators to pass a bill creating a sexual harassment task force to study what has been labeled the “culture of harassment” at the Capitol.
Coincidentally or otherwise, the final half-hour of the House’s March 29 floor session—the last one before break—was devoted to an unscheduled motion from House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, to get her task force bill passed.
Hortman moved to suspend House rules so the bill could be debated and voted on. After more than half an hour of debate her bid failed, 48-69.
Though Cornish was never mentioned by name, his visit formed part of that discussion’s backdrop. Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, alluded directly to Cornish while urging her colleagues to approve Hortman’s motion. “People do not feel safe here,” Schultz said. “We have seen that this week.”
In an email Monday, Schultz confirmed that comment was aimed at Cornish. While he is not restricted from visiting the Capitol, she said, his decision to show up was disturbing to a number of women at the Capitol.
“I believe he was trying to intimidate his accusers,” Schultz said. “Tony made many members, staff and lobbyists uncomfortable.”
Maye Quade also spoke during the floor debate. As she rose, many of her DFL colleagues rose to with her as if to form a protective envelope around her.
Employment attorney Grant Collins—who does not represent Walker—said a restraining order might be a viable option if Walker feels she needs protection from Cornish. However, he said, if one were granted it would not necessarily mean Cornish would be banned from the Capitol.
Not only is the Capitol a public place, Collins said, but Cornish retains all his constitutional rights to petition his government. What courts might do in such a case is work out an arrangement that allows both parties to visit the Capitol, just so long as the harasser involved made no direct contact with the victim.
Still, should it come to that, a restraining order would be serious business, Collins said. “The court would say he has to stay away from her,” Collins said. “You are subject to automatic arrest if you violate it.”
‘No plans’ to return
Cornish seems intent on avoiding anything like that. Speaking by phone to Minnesota Lawyer on Monday, he said four times in a four-minute conversation that he does not intend to return.
Cornish said he timed his March 27 visit to coincide with his StarTribune op-ed, published that morning. It advocated against gun-control legislation.
“The singular and only purpose of my visit was to coincide the trip with the letter that came out in the paper and to talk to legislators about the possible gun-control laws,” Cornish said.
Cornish said he met with the relevant chairs in House Public Safety and Senate Judiciary. He also sat through six committee hearings that day—two in the Senate and four in the House. It was during one of those that the Maye Quade photo was snapped.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is the Judiciary Committee’s chair. He confirmed late Friday that he met briefly with Cornish on March 27. “I think it was just basically a social visit,” Limmer said.
The Judiciary chair said he thought Cornish might be hoping to trade on his expertise as a legislator to drum up business as a lobbyist, but he was not sure.
“Who knows what his true motive was?” Limmer said. “I think maybe he just wanted to say hi to some old friends.”
If that is so—and if Cornish is to be taken permanently at his word—it might have been his last such greeting on Capitol grounds. Cornish has no interest in becoming a lobbyist, he said. And when asked to confirm that he truly means never to return to the Capitol, he answered affirmatively.
“I was there because some members had asked questions of me because they considered me the go-to guy about gun control legislation,” Cornish said. “So I answered the questions and made my visits. And now I have no plans on going back.”