Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Legislative committee to consider ethics complaints against two state senators: Here’s what to expect

People in the legislative chamber
Sen. Nicole Mitchell takes her seat as the Senate begins their session at the State Capitol on April 29.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In a public hearing Tuesday afternoon, a Minnesota Senate ethics committee planned to weigh complaints against two sitting senators, including one who was arrested for felony burglary last month, State Senator Nicole Mitchell.

MPR politics reporter Dana Ferguson joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer before the hearing to explain.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Well, also at the Capitol today, there is a state Senate ethics committee that will hold a public hearing this afternoon to weigh complaints against two sitting senators, including one who was arrested for felony burglary last month, DFL State Senator Nicole Mitchell. Our politics reporter, Dana Ferguson, joins us right now from the Capitol. Hey, Dana.


CATHY WURZER: OK, so tell us about what this committee is taking up today.

DANA FERGUSON: Yeah. They will have two complaints today, one against Mitchell and another against GOP Senator Glenn Gruenhagen of Glencoe. The complaint against Mitchell alleges that she violated Senate rules requiring members to uphold high levels of ethical conduct and not act in a way that betrays the public trust. Republicans argue that Mitchell broke those rules last month when she was arrested for felony burglary and in the days since in public statements she's made about the incident. Here's Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson.

MARK JOHNSON: This is one of the most clear cases of a violation of our rules that we've seen. And so who knows what could happen in this-- in the final result of it. But this is serious. This is a serious charge-- and I hope the ethics committee takes this very seriously-- and not a politically driven thing but what's right for the victim of this crime.

DANA FERGUSON: Mitchell was arrested at her stepmother's home and said she was retrieving her father's ashes and some other items. She said in a criminal complaint and social media post that she was trying to check on her stepmother when she called 911. Mitchell's attorney said that Mitchell will attend the hearing and, quote, "is hopeful that the committee will determine that the hearing is premature. She remains focused on preparing her defense on the criminal case."

CATHY WURZER: OK. So that's Senator Mitchell. What do we know about the complaint against Senator Gruenhagen?

DANA FERGUSON: His complaint stems from a situation last year where he sent a link to members that contained a graphic video depicting a person's genitals. He said he was trying to make a point about a bill that dealt with gender-affirming care.

CATHY WURZER: OK, so the two complaints are before the Senate ethics subcommittee, right? This is a subcommittee. So what can you tell us about this panel. How does it work?

DANA FERGUSON: Yeah. It's a four-person committee split with two Republicans and two Democrats serving on it. It will take up those complaints today and start discussing whether there's probable cause to move forward with their investigations. Ultimately, it could offer a recommendation, ranging from calling for an apology to expulsion. The Senate has never expelled a member before.

CATHY WURZER: Yes, that's true. Doesn't it seem kind of unlikely to you that they'd issue a recommendation today?

DANA FERGUSON: Yeah, it does. This is expected to be more of a preliminary hearing. And I should mention that the committee's rules say that they can defer action if there's an ongoing criminal investigation. In Mitchell's case, that's what's happening. Her next court hearing is scheduled for June 10, after the legislative session adjourns.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering how legislative leaders are approaching this meeting.

DANA FERGUSON: Yeah. Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy said leaders are taking this process seriously and working hard to avoid having members hear information that could impact the process. Mitchell previously sat in the chamber next to a DFL member of the panel and was moved to avoid a potential conflict of interest. Murphy also said that two DFL members on the committee, Senators Bobby Joe Champion and Mary Kunesh, have been asked to step out of caucus meetings if any mention of Mitchell comes up. Mitchell has been removed from the caucus.

ERIN MURPHY: We don't want Minnesotans or our colleagues here to have any reason to believe that we are trying to manipulate, put our finger on the scale, influence, or anything else other than let that subcommittee do its important work. We all need to trust that they are doing a fair job on behalf of the institution. And we shouldn't play politics with that.

CATHY WURZER: OK. And so the committee is meeting later this afternoon?

DANA FERGUSON: It is, yes.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Dana Ferguson, thank you.

DANA FERGUSON: Thanks, Cathy. Have a good day.

CATHY WURZER: You too. That was MPR News Politics Reporter Dana Ferguson.

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