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Former Republican House Speaker: I confronted Cornish

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Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers
Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers says he admonished Rep. Tony Cornish after hearing rumors of sexual harassment.
Alex Kolyer for MPR 2012

Updated: 8:55 p.m. | Posted: 4:20 p.m.

Former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers said Friday GOP Rep. Tony Cornish should resign from office, revealing that he confronted the veteran legislator about suggestions of sexual harassment and warned such behavior wouldn't be tolerated.

"During my tenure as Speaker of the House, in response to second-hand rumors at the State Capitol, I had a private meeting with Rep. Tony Cornish," Zellers wrote in a statement. "At that time, I informed Rep. Cornish in the strongest possible terms that sexual harassment of any kind is unacceptable and will not be tolerated at the Minnesota Legislature."

Zellers added he received no further complaints about Cornish, who now faces accusations he propositioned a lobbyist for sex and sent text messages commenting on a DFL lawmaker's body.

Late Friday, the top Democrat in the Minnesota House also called for Cornish's resignation. Minority leader Melissa Hortman said in a tweet, "Credible information of serious misconduct has come to light," and specifically noted Zellers' statement. Previously, Hortman said the "accusations were the first step in a process."

This pattern needs to stop. Credible information of serious misconduct has come to light. Rep. Cornish should resign. https://t.co/3V21lGAjqu

— Melissa Hortman (@melissahortman) November 11, 2017

Zellers, a Maple Grove Republican who was speaker from 2011 to 2013 and a minority leader before that, urged current House leadership start an outside investigation into Cornish's behavior.

"I understand that it is difficult for victims of sexual harassment to speak out, especially against elected officials in positions of power. I commend them for speaking out about their difficult experiences at the State Capitol, and I believe their stories," Zellers said.

"Based on current news reports and the serious nature of the complaints voiced about Rep. Cornish, I believe he should resign from office and issue an apology to his victims and constituents he was sent to St. Paul to represent."

Zellers is the first Republican to call for Cornish's resignation. Democrats and Republicans called for DFL state Sen. Dan Schoen to step down after complaints by two women about his behavior became public this week. Schoen has denied any wrongdoing.

Cornish has denied the most serious allegations against him: that he told a lobbyist at his office to discuss an issue that she made him erect. That lobbyist spoke to MPR News on Thursday on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Cornish told MPR News Thursday night that he had never been spoken to by current or past leadership about his conduct. 

"I've never been talked to the speaker or leadership about anything like that," Cornish said.

Asked if that covered the entire eight terms he has been in the Legislature, Cornish responded.

"Yes, in my entire time I've been," he said, adding, "It's coming out of very left field. I've never received any oral reprimand or written reprimand from any of my leadership about any activity I have had."

Cornish did not return repeated calls for comment after Zellers' statement on Friday. 

Current House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, has said no specific complaint about Cornish had been brought to his attention prior to the accounts published Thursday. He has suspended Cornish from his chairmanship of the House Public Safety Committee and ordered the House human resources department to begin an investigation.

The lobbyist who lodged the allegation against Cornish Thursday has hired a lawyer. 

"I would say all options are on the table," said Scott Flaherty with the firm Briggs and Morgan about the possibility of litigation. "We're taking this very seriously, and obviously there's been a lot that's happened in the past 48 and 24 hours."

Read the full statement by Zellers here:

"During my tenure as Speaker of the House, in response to second-hand rumors at the State Capitol, I had a private meeting with Rep. Tony Cornish. At that time, I informed Rep. Cornish in the strongest possible terms that sexual harassment of any kind is unacceptable and will not be tolerated at the Minnesota Legislature. I also informed him that if I received any complaint we would immediately begin disciplinary proceedings. No further incidents regarding Rep. Tony Cornish were reported or communicated to me after this meeting and during the remainder of my term as Speaker of the House.

I understand that it is difficult for victims of sexual harassment to speak out, especially against elected officials in positions of power. I commend them for speaking out about their difficult experiences at the State Capitol, and I believe their stories.

Given the seriousness of the complaints, the Minnesota House should immediately conduct an outside investigation. Based on current news reports and the serious nature of the complaints voiced about Rep. Cornish, I believe he should resign from office and issue an apology to his victims and constituents he was sent to St. Paul to represent."