Johnson sanctions include apology on Senate floor

Taking the oath
Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, left, and his attorney Ellen Sampson, are sworn in at the start of the ethics committee hearing.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Earlier this week six Republican senators filed an ethics complaint against Johnson, alleging the Willmar Democrat violated Senate rules. The complaint says Johnson repeatedly lied or misled in his descriptions of conversations with Supreme Court justices.

Chief Justice Russell Anderson said this week that no current or former justice has talked to Johnson about the state's law banning gay marriage.

The Senate Ethics Subcommittee took testimony for a few minutes, and then discussed the matter behind closed doors for about two hours. Two of the six Republicans who filed the complaint addressed the committee during the open part of the meeting.

Republican Sens. Claire Robling of Jordan and Mike McGinn of Eagan, who filed the ethics complaint against Johnson, attended the hearing.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Sen. Claire Robling of Jordan told the panel that if Johnson fabricated the story, he betrayed the public trust.

"When one of the members of our Senate does not tell the truth in order to achieve a desired end, it feeds the public perception that all politicians are dishonest. This hurts everyone in the body," she said.

Johnson has admitted "embellishing" his description of casual conversations, but says he didn't violate Senate rules. Johnson's comments have inflamed what was already a heated debate over a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Supporters of the measure believe it's necessary because they think the courts could throw out current law, while opponents have downplayed that possibility.

The ethics panel emerged from their private deliberations to say they had a unanimous resolution, but one that doesn't determine what really happened.

The two Democrats and two Republicans on the panel agreed that if the allegations are true, there's probable cause that Johnson violated Senate rules. But the senators wanted to avoid a protracted hearing that could have pitted Johnson against Supreme Court justices.

One of the Republicans, Sen. Tom Neuville of Northfield, says committee members were concerned that the separation of powers between the legislative and judical branches could stymie a fact-finding effort.

"There's no guarantee that even with a contested hearing, that it would necessarily get to the truth, because we can't guarantee that we could get the Supreme Court judges here to testify," according to Neuville.

Neuville says requiring Johnson to apologize to the Senate is a good resolution to the matter. Johnson must also give a written apology to the people who convened the pastors meeting in January, and then the complaint will be dismissed.

Johnson says he'll be glad to put the matter behind him.

"Occasionally it's good to apologize and learn a lesson. Perhaps my statements were made out of emotion and being somewhat overzealous, but I do not think I violated a Senate rule, I was stating a position. I was advocating an opinion," he said.

Committee chair Jim Metzen, a DFLer from South St. Paul, says he expects criticism that the ethics panel didn't go far enough, but says he's comfortable with the decision. The committee didn't tell Johnson what to say in his apology, but Metzen says Johnson will not make a political speech.

The senators who brought the ethics complaint say they hope Johnson makes a sincere apology. Robling says she wants to hear Johnson say he's sorry to have put the Senate through what's been a difficult couple of weeks.

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