Minn. Senate ethics panel deadlocked over Michel complaint

Sen. Geoff Michel
Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, defends his actions to the Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct on Friday, March 23, 2012.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

A Minnesota Senate panel met Friday to review an ethics complaint filed against Republican Sen. Geoff Michel of Edina, but it could not reach a consensus on whether to take any action.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, claims that Michel lied about his knowledge of the affair between former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and former Senate staffer Michael Brodkorb. Michel insists he did nothing wrong.

In the complaint filed earlier in the week, Pappas accused Michel of bringing the Senate into "dishonor and disrepute" for not quickly addressing the affair. Michel, who formerly served as deputy majority leader, was one of the GOP Senators who announced in December that Koch had resigned her leadership post after they confronted her about an "inappropriate relationship."

Pappas told members of the Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct that she believes Michel made false statements about when he learned of the affair.

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"Sen. Michel, first, is on record providing misleading and false statements on the pretense of protecting whistle-blowers," Pappas said. "However, he was under no compulsion to provide any information regarding a timeline of his knowledge of the relationship. But instead, Sen. Michel decided to provide inaccurate information to the public."

The DFL complaint brought renewed attention to an episode Republican leaders have been trying hard to put behind them. Koch is not seeking re-election to her Senate seat, but Brodkorb is preparing a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Senate.

That looming litigation prompted Senate President Michele Fischbach to step in when Pappas tried to ask Michel whether he sought advice from Senate staff.

"That may be moving into potential litigation," Fischbach said. "I am going to respectfully request that you withdraw that question. I've been advised by counsel that this enters into an area of potential litigation directing effecting the Senate's interests."

Pappas wants Michel, who is also not seeking re-election, to make a public apology on the Senate floor. Michel insists he has no reason to apologize. He contends his actions were transparent and designed to protect the Senate employees who came forward with concerns about the affair.

Sen. Sandy Pappas
Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, filed the ethics complaint against Sen. Geoff Michel. Michel appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct on Friday, March 23, 2012.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

With other Republican senators sitting behind him, Michel told the subcommittee that the complaint is all about politics.

"Sen. Koch is not available as a target any more. Sen. Koch has apologized. She has accepted full responsibility. That was an honorable thing to do," Michel said. "Now Sen. Pappas has turned on me. After all, there's no point in allowing a scandal to get wrapped up in January if you can keep it going into March, especially during an election year."

The ethics panel's task was to determine whether there was probable cause to pursue the complaint. But with a membership of two Republicans and two Democrats, the subcommittee could not reach a bipartisan consensus on whether to investigate further or delay action until after the Brodkorb lawsuit is resolved.

Subcommittee member Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, said Michel should have handled the situation discreetly, rather than hold a news conference.

"That's where the disrepute for the Senate begins," he said. "That ... is certainly broadcasting the information to a body that is far beyond that group that needed to know."

But Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, defended Michel, who he believes handled a tough situation appropriately.

"It wasn't a very easy deal. Families are involved, marriages are involved, and time goes on," Ingebrigtsen said. "I'm not going to second guess what was going on."

After the meeting broke up, Michel tried to declare victory because a motion to find probable cause failed on a tie vote. He also repeated that he has no intention of apologizing.

The panel planned to resume discussions later following a Senate floor session expected to go well into the night, but there's no sign they'll agree on anything.