Attorney notifies House, Cornish to preserve evidence amid harassment claims

Rep. Tony Cornish
Rep. Tony Cornish during a Minnesota house public safety committee hearing at the State Capitol, March 19, 2013, in St. Paul.
Jim Mone | AP 2013

Updated: 6:30 p.m. | Posted: 3:22 p.m.

A lawyer on Monday instructed the Minnesota House and Rep. Tony Cornish to preserve any possible evidence related to sexual harassment allegations against Cornish.

The lawyer represents a lobbyist who has accused Cornish of unwanted sexual advances. It signals that both the House and Cornish could be targets of a civil lawsuit.

It also highlights the different strategies House and Senate leaders are taking to respond to harassment complaints.

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt announced over the weekend that an outside firm will conduct an independent investigation of allegations against Cornish, a Republican from Vernon Center.

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The move came after a DFL legislator and an unnamed female lobbyist accused Cornish of harassing behavior.

The lobbyist's lawyer, Scott Flaherty, said he wants to know more about the planned investigation and how it will move forward.

"I'd have questions about what exactly the procedural protections are in place, both for the subjects of this investigation, Cornish, as well as victims like my client," he said.

Flaherty sent a letter to Cornish suggesting other victims might be coming forward. He also reminded the lawmaker and House leaders of their legal obligation to preserve evidence.

"A lot of times people who have done things have a bad habit of accidentally or intentionally destroying documents, deleting emails or even physically destroying computers," Flaherty said.

The allegation prompted Daudt to strip Cornish of his committee chairmanship, but he did not call for his resignation. Cornish denies the lobbyist's story and said he won't step down.

DFL Rep. Laurie Halverson of Eagan says Cornish should definitely resign.

"To me it's just crystal clear. If it's a fireable offense in any business in your community, you have to hold yourself to that standard as an elected representative," Halverson said.

In the Senate, there's been no similar announcement of an independent investigation of the allegations against Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL- St. Paul Park. There have, however, been numerous calls for Schoen's resignation.

Two women last week accused Schoen of making unwelcome advances in 2015 when he served in the House. Schoen denied any wrongdoing and has hired a lawyer.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said last week that the Senate's ethics process might be used if Schoen doesn't step down.

If a senator files a complaint, the ethics subcommittee must meet within 30 days. The panel must first find probable cause before launching an investigation. It could ultimately result in a Senate vote on whether to expel Schoen.

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, agrees with that approach.

"It's so public at this point that it probably is the ethic committee where it belongs," Senjem said.

Senjem took a different approach when he was a Senate leader. Without naming names or getting into specifics, Senjem said he privately demanded that an accused male Senator take a class on sexual harassment.

"There was never any other report that it ever indicted that happened again. So, it seemed like we took care of it," he said.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, a former chair of the ethics subcommittee, says she thinks Senjem handled the case appropriately.

"That's the preferable approach, because the behavior may be offensive, but it may not be enough that you should lose your job and your career over it, and that people can change," Pappas said.

Pappas said the difference with the Schoen allegations is that they became public. At that point, she said, he brought the Senate into disrepute.

Gov. Mark Dayton called for a review of sexual harassment policies in state government and training that currently is offered. "No one should be subjected to the harassment and assaults that have come to light in recent days, nor suffer from the fear, shame and mistrust that result from such acts," the DFL governor said in a letter released by his office.

The state DFL party released a statement Monday saying all campaigns receiving official support will be required to take "comprehensive" workplace conduct and sexual harassment training.

Meanwhile, the allegations have prompted the professional organization that represents lobbyists at the state Capitol to look more closely at workplace protections.

Daryn McBeth, president of the Minnesota Governmental Relations Council, said a discussion on the issue is planned Thursday during the organization's regular board meeting.

"We're not an employer, but our workplace for lobbyists is the state Capitol complex and related buildings," McBeth said. "We're going to evaluate as a service to our members what role we should play if our members feel unsafe or harassed or that kind of thing."