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Attorney General Keith Ellison makes his first committee appearance before the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee on Jan. 17, 2019. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Keith Ellison seeks criminal unit boost

Attorney General Keith Ellison told lawmakers last week that he will seek money this year to expand his office’s criminal division.

In his first testimony before any legislative committee on Jan. 17, Ellison told the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee that his biennial budget request will seek to bulk up that unit.

His committee appearance was mostly a get-acquainted session, giving Ellison a chance to fill lawmakers in on his role as AG and to field a few questions. He made no formal budget request, but offered a strong hint about what would ask for.

“I will tell you that we plan on submitting a supplemental request that will reflect the needs that I have been hearing about from my partners who are county attorneys,” Ellison said.

The AG’s criminal division is authorized to assist county attorneys in difficult criminal prosecutions when they ask for help. Ellison didn’t say how many additional lawyers he wants to hire or how much money he would need. He said only that “the request will be modest and will reflect the actual needs.”

In an interview, Ellison said he wasn’t ready to shed any further light on the plan. “But it’s a debate we’ve got to have,” Ellison said. “We need resources to help our people.”

In 2018, both Ellison and his GOP opponent Doug Wardlow campaigned on adding heft to the AG’s criminal division. The unit was sharply pared down after Skip Humphrey left office in 1999. Subsequent AGs emphasized consumer fraud, civil litigation and other activities within the office.

Ellison told senators last week that Minnesota county attorneys have convinced him in talks that they want more assistance from his office.

“County attorneys in greater Minnesota are excellent lawyers,” Ellison told the Senate committee. “But when you consider a county that has only one or two county attorneys on staff, and you have one murder there, that totally upsets the balance. Somebody has to cover the regular calendar.”

Ellison is likely to get support for his request from senators within his own party. But two Republicans on the Senate State Government committee were split in their opinions about the pending request.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, is himself an attorney who has worked as a public defender and administrative law judge. He supports the unit’s expansion and said it is long overdue.

“For many years the attorney general’s office was very active in criminal prosecutions,” Newman said in an interview. “That portion of the office almost doesn’t exist anymore and it is sorely needed.”

Newman said many outstate county attorneys don’t have the wherewithal, expertise or the staff to handle the most complex criminal investigations.

“But they are nevertheless really serious criminal matters,” Newman said. “When asked, that is when the attorney general does have a legal obligation, in my estimation, to step in and help. And that is what I think [Ellison] is going to do.”

The committee’s chair was less enthusiastic. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said that if Ellison wants to bulk up the unit, he should first look for ways to shift money around within his existing budget.

Kiffmeyer said she doubts her GOP Senate caucus—which currently holds a two-seat majority in the upper chamber—would support his request.

“I would say it’s not likely, because the office has really got a pretty substantial budget to begin with,” she said. “I think first you should look at whether a re-prioritization of needs is needed within the office.”

Kiffmeyer said that when she was Secretary of State during former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s first term, 15 percent of her agency’s budget got cut, forcing her to trim across the board.

“The change  turned out good in the end,” Kiffmeyer said. “I was very grateful to be challenged. I hope he will take it with that attitude because it may help him as well.”

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