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Report: State Sen. Dan Schoen accused of sexual harassment

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State Rep. Dan Schoen
State Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, in a photo from Jan. 23, 2013, at the State Office Building in St. Paul. He was a member of the Minnesota House at the time.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2013

Updated: Nov. 9, 1 p.m. | Posted: Nov. 8, 11:34 p.m.

Democratic state Sen. Dan Schoen is under pressure to resign amid allegations of improper sexual conduct lodged by multiple women, accusations that led to swift calls from leaders of both political parties for him to step down.

In a statement late Wednesday, Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, denied wrongdoing and gave no indication he would resign.

As the allegations surfaced in an extensive MinnPost story, DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk had already called for Schoen's resignation. The state Republican Party chief as well as DFL governor candidate Erin Murphy, a state representative who was a former Schoen colleague, also demanded he leave the Legislature.

By Thursday, the calls to leave included DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, who praised the women who stepped forward, saying there is "no room in our party for sexual harassment." 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, also called for Schoen to step down and raised the possibility of an ethics investigation if he refused.

The city of Cottage Grove, where Schoen works as a police officer, said Thursday that Schoen will be placed on administrative duty until the allegations are investigated; officials will also review whether any city policies were violated. 

The MinnPost story quotes Murphy as saying she was informed by past DFL House candidate Lindsey Port that Schoen made unwelcome sexual remarks and touched Port on the buttocks during a 2015 political party event. Murphy said she reported the incident to DFL House leadership staff, but it was unclear how it was dealt with.

Minneapolis Rep. Paul Thissen, who was the House's DFL caucus leader at the time, said Thursday that he was told about the allegations and confronted Schoen privately.

"I told him it was unacceptable behavior and it had to stop and made it very clear what our expectations were," Thissen said. "After that I did not hear of any further allegations until the story came out."

On Twitter, Port said she was coming forward as a way of "standing with other women who are bravely sharing their stories, because this is not who we are. This cannot be the future. And I refuse to be silent."

Schoen didn't return a call or text from MPR News. His written statement said he takes the allegations seriously but he called them "either completely false or have been taken far out of context."

"It was never my intention to leave the impression I was making an inappropriate advance on anyone. I feel terrible that someone may have a different interpretation of an encounter, but that is the absolute truth," Schoen said. "I also unequivocally deny that I ever made inappropriate contact with anyone."

Another woman, DFL state Rep. Erin Maye Quade of Apple Valley, told MinnPost that prior to winning election to the House she received unsolicited text messages from Schoen that came off as a solicitation for an encounter at his home. She said she told Murphy about it but declined to lodge a formal complaint.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Kurt Daudt said this week that all Minnesota House members will undergo mandatory sexual harassment and other discrimination training early in the next legislative session. Senate leadership was also considering stepping up training before the Schoen story broke.

They said the discussions weren't in response to a specific claim but rather a reflection of heightened awareness about sexual harassment from high-profile incidents that have only recently been brought to light inside and out of politics.

In recent weeks, allegations of sexual harassment have rattled statehouses from Florida to Washington state. The scandals have led to resignations of prominent lawmakers, and exposed secret settlements agreed to by those accused of inappropriate behavior.

It's not known whether there are past or pending allegations against Minnesota lawmakers or high-level staff members. Under the Legislature's longstanding policy, complaints and the result of investigations are kept confidential.

Daudt said Wednesday he was not alerted to allegations in St. Paul.

"We take sexual harassment in the Minnesota House very seriously and I have not had a specific complaint of sexual harassment since I have been speaker," Daudt said.

Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said he had been in discussion for months with DFL House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman about providing training for members. 

"You know times have probably changed for a lot of these members with texting and tweeting and online and all that stuff," Daudt said. "We want to make sure everybody is up to speed on what a professional work environment looks like and we want to make sure everybody feels respected."

Staff members must take a course every five years. But it's unclear if legislators have gone through it as frequently. Daudt says he doesn't remember doing it since his freshman orientation in 2010. The Senate intends to do an audit to determine when its members last had a course. 

Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the training isn't happening often enough.

"As an employment lawyer, I recommended to my clients that they train annually," she said. "The corporation that I was general counsel for for 10 years we did the training annually. That's best practices."

Written policies spell out what behavior is unacceptable, including unwelcome physical advances, sexual jokes or connecting sexual behavior to job status. The policies apply to situations involving fellow lawmakers, staff or anyone else around the legislative process.

Complaints are supposed to be made either to a House or Senate leader, another supervisor or a personnel officer. The respective human resources directors are in charge of the investigations. Substantiated claims against staff can result in a warning or other discipline up to termination.

For cases involving legislators, discipline is handled by leadership or an ethics panel.

Gazelka said he hadn't received any complaints since he rose to the top post a year ago. He said he wouldn't have tolerance for the type of allegations being lodged at other capitols.

"It would be unacceptable and something that I would be very upset about if we were labeled with doing something like that. And I don't think we are. I really believe we're trying to act like statesmen and stateswomen," Gazelka said in an interview Wednesday before the Schoen allegations surfaced publicly.

Gazelka said he met this week with key aides to start discussing whether senators will also get new training.

"I've asked our team members to tell me what exactly do we do," he said. "Is there anything out there that I should be aware of as far as something going on? We know that we need to make sure we're doing everything we need to do."

A spokesperson for Bakk said he's committed to working with other leaders to update the policy and frequency of training for members and staff.

MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire contributed to this report.

Correction (Nov. 9, 2017): Lindsey Port's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.