GOP files ethics complaint against Dean Johnson

Johnson apologizes
Senate DFL Leader Dean Johnson apologized Friday for statements he made earlier in the year, which indicated that State Supreme Court justices had told him they would not overturn Minnesota's law banning gay marriage. Republicans filed an ethics complaint against him Wednesday.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Republican senators Mike McGinn and Claire Robling delivered the complaint to the President of the Senate. The complaint said Republicans were troubled about Johnson's comments about same-sex marriage and the state Supreme Court. McGinn, of Eagan, says he's also troubled that Johnson's story has been constantly evolving over the past week.

"We were very slow to file this ethics complaint because we didn't want it to appear like it was a totally partisan attack. That's not what we're about. We're about taking care of the Senate's credibility," McGinn said.

Sens. Robling and McGinn
Republican Sens. Claire Robling of Jordan and Mike McGinn of Eagan filed an ethics complaint against Senate DFL Leader Dean Johnson. "Because we understand that if we do nothing we are giving tacit approval of unethical conduct, we believe further investigation is necessary," they said.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

The complaint is a reaction to comments Johnson made to a group of pastors in January. He was secretly recorded telling the group that several Supreme Court justices assured him they wouldn't overturn the state's law banning gay marriage.

Several groups have been pushing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions because they're worried the courts will overturn the state law.

Johnson apologized. He said he "embellished" a conversation he had with one judge. But even that was challenged when the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court said no one on the court discussed the issue with Johnson.

Robling, from Jordan, says she hopes that Senate DFLers will recognize the importance of the situation and hold Johnson accountable.

"It really does not bring my any joy to be doing this, but I think it's necessary because we need to uphold the integrity of members of the Senate in general, so the public isn't always saying they're all just a bunch of crooks and liars," she said.

If people are going to criticize us for embellishment, I think every one of us would have to burn our campaign literature.

Ethics complaints are rarely filed in the Legislature. The matter now goes to a four-member panel of two Republicans and two Democrats which has to take some action within 30 days. The committee can ask for an investigation, dismiss the complaint or delay a ruling. The members will decide whether Johnson broke any rules and whether a punishment is necessary.

When first asked about the complaint, Johnson called it "political shananigans" by Republicans. He later said he takes the complaint seriously and would remove himself from any oversight of the committee that handles complaints. Johnson, who is also a brigadier general in the National Guard, said he didn't feel like he was wounded politically from the flap.

"Generals work and think and keep their cool under every condition. There's a war going on over in Baghdad and a political conflict going on here. In fact, I feel stronger by the encouragement of my constituents and the unanimous vote of support by my colleagues," he said.

Earlier in the week, Johnson's DFL colleagues in the Minnesota Senate gave him a vote of confidence as majority leader. The group announced that every DFLer voted in favor of keeping Johnson as majority leader.

Democrats also appear unfazed by the ethics complaint. Sen. Don Betzold of Fridley says he doesn't think complaint is warranted.

"If people are going to criticize for embellishment, I think every one of us has to burn our campaign literature, because I think a lot of us may be putting things in there and claiming a little bit more than we've actually done sometimes, so I think that this is probably overblown," he said.

Republicans say Johnson can put the entire flap behind him if he allows the Minnesota Senate to hold an up or down vote on the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, civil unions or any other legal equivalent.

Sen. Betzold, the DFLer who chairs the Judiciary Committee, says he will hold a hearing on the measure next month. Backers of the measure worry it will be defeated in committee and want a full Senate vote on the matter. The Secretary of the Senate says the procedural move is rarely done against a committee chairman's wishes. The last time he remembers it being done is the 1970s.

The latest flap also comes one day after Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, said it was time to move on from the controversy regarding Johnson. Pawlenty also said he'd ask the Republican Party to stop their criticism of Johnson. Pawlenty said he can't stop Senate Republicans from filing the complaint but, "I also hope that we can focus on the underlying and substantive issues facing Minnesota. That includes, by the way, the Defense of Marriage Act, that includes education reform and health care reform and the other things. I hope that whatever process people are going to follow that that can be done off to the side or simultaneous to still getting the rest of our work done."

But as much as Pawlenty wants lawmakers to focus on other issues, it's likely that the same-sex marriage issue will dominate the agenda until the session ends in May.

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