Minn. GOP left shaky after Sen. Koch steps down

Koch resignation
From left, Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, Interim Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel and Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, discuss the resignation of former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch at the Capitol Friday, Dec. 16, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Republicans in the Minnesota Senate are reeling following Sen. Amy Koch's announcement Thursday to step down as majority leader, after GOP senate leaders confronted her about allegations that she engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a male staffer.

Koch's abrupt resignation had already thrown Senate Republicans for a loop and now the party must deal with the scandal as an election year approaches.

On Thursday, Koch, a Republican from Buffalo, Minn. said she was resigning because she felt it was time, that she wanted "to explore some other options" and spend time with her daughter.

On Friday, four Republican senators revealed that they may have been the ones to tell Koch her time was up. Interim Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel told reporters that he and Republican Senators David Hann, Dave Senjem and Chris Gerlach confronted Koch on Wednesday evening about allegations involving a Senate staffer. Michel said Koch neither admitted nor denied the allegations, and the senators did not know that she would step down.

"We think as Amy Koch as our sister. Every one of the folks worked hard with her and for her," Michel said. "We didn't go to that meeting feeling all excited and comfortable, and we don't come before you today feeling excited about it as well."

Citing legal reasons, Michel and the others declined to identify the staffer except to say it was a man who reported directly to Koch. Michel said Koch suggested at the time that she would resign. Koch resigned less than a day later, shocking Senators, staffers and reporters.

Koch's abrupt resignation was a surprise to many Capitol insiders, but her alleged inappropriate relationship came as an even bigger surprise.

Koch, Zellers
Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers speak to media after meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton at the governor's residence in St. Paul, Minn., Tuesday, May 17, 2011.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"I'm not sure we could have predicted 48 hours ago where this would end," Michel said. "And we had no such plans, but we felt we had to raise this."

Michel said senate staffers told him roughly two weeks ago about the alleged incidents. Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said they decided to confront Koch and bring in the Secretary of Senate, who oversees Senate administration. Senjum said a manager cannot have a relationship with anyone that he or she directly oversees.

"It's quite obvious that this is painful for all of us but to not take that very appropriate, professional approach to this would have been wrong, and we committed ourselves to do it the right way," Michel said.

Koch did not return calls to MPR News Friday to respond to the allegations. During a brief interview on Thursday MPR reporter Tom Scheck asked Koch whether a scandal was the reason she was stepping down as majority leader.

Koch: This is about my decision to step down. I'm not going to address anything like that.

Scheck: Is that a firm "No" then?

Koch: I'm not even going to comment on that.

Koch is married with a daughter.

Koch was the first female Senate Majority Leader in Minnesota history. She is widely credited with helping Republicans win control of the Senate in 2010 for the first time in 38 years. She was also in the middle of a prolonged budget battle with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton that led to a government shutdown lasting three weeks last summer.

Senate Republicans now must try to regroup. Their bylaws require them to meet before Dec. 29 to elect a new majority leader. Michel has been selected to act as interim majority leader.

The 2012 session starts on Jan. 24 and every seat in the Legislature is on the ballot in 2012. The state Republican Party is also seeking a new chair, and the party is $500,000 dollars in debt. Michel said he and other members of the Senate hope to start working on public policy again.

"I was struck the other day that the monthly jobs report came out and it's probably more important to focus on the 13,000 Minnesotans who lost their jobs than the career of any one or five state senators," Michel said. "We need to get back to working on our legislative agenda, and 2012 is going to be an important year."

But that could be difficult. Michel would not say whether he thought an ethics complaint would be filed against Koch.

Koch's resignation and the developing scandal only add to the problems of the Minnesota Republican Party.

In another loss to the GOP, Secretary of the Senate Cal Ludeman confirmed Friday night that Koch's top communications aide Michael Brodkorb was no longer working for the Senate. He declined to say whether Brodkorb left on his own or was dismissed. Brodkorb did not return a phone call for comment in time for this report.

A few weeks ago the party's chairman Tony Sutton resigned abruptly, and the party itself is $500,000 in debt.

Also Friday, a favorite to replace Sutton as head of the Republican Party dropped out of the race a day after an airport arrest, and amid other questions surrounding his past.

Starkey Laboratories executive Brandon Sawalich told party activists in an email that it "cannot afford distractions for the uphill battle our party has in store."

He was arrested and cited Thursday because his truck registration had lapsed months earlier. Airport police thought the tabs had been expired for a year and a half, and arrested Sawalich on a gross misdemeanor charge. But due to a clerical error, the police were wrong and the tabs were only six months out of date. He will now only have to pay a ticket.

The Associated Press sought comment later Friday on a civil lawsuit Sawalich and a subordinate settled in 2003, claiming sexual harassment.

Sawalich didn't return calls about the case. Nor did a law firm who represented the employee who claimed unwanted sexual advances.

(Associated Press reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this report)

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