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Rep. Cornish to resign amid sexual misconduct accusations

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Rep. Tony Cornish
State Rep. Tony Cornish has agreed to leave the Legislature.
Jim Mone | AP 2013

Updated 7:20 p.m. | Posted 5:54 p.m.

Republican state Rep. Tony Cornish has agreed to resign amid an investigation into whether he sexually harassed women who work in and around the state Capitol.  

      He becomes the second Minnesota politician to be forced out over conduct since national attention began to focus on behavior by those in powerful roles.  

      A lawyer for state Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, said earlier on Tuesday that Schoen will announce Wednesday he's stepping down amid claims of sexual misconduct.    

Cornish's departure comes less than two weeks after allegations of sexual harassment were made against him.    

  A settlement reached by Cornish and one of his accusers was signed Tuesday. It requires him to resign within 24 hours, pay the accuser's $4,200 legal fees and issue a public apology.  

  In exchange, Cornish, R-Vernon Center, is released from a possible lawsuit by the woman, a lobbyist who repeatedly received sexual text messages and described an office encounter in which Cornish told her he was aroused by her presence.

That lobbyist, Sarah C. Walker, stepped forward late Tuesday following Cornish's resignation.

"I did not want this to be about me or become another 'he said, she said' situation,"  Walker said in a statement. "I am hopeful that by going public I can help others make the tough decision to speak out regarding their own stories."

She added: "No one should be forced to accept sexual harassment in exchange for the opportunity to work on issues in the political arena or anywhere else."

  Cornish, in his statement, apologized for his "unwelcome behavior" to Walker and all others involved as well as "to God, my family, my constituents, and friends for the mistakes I have made." The statement said he would exit the Legislature on or before Dec. 1.

"As a proud former peace officer and longtime champion for public safety, I am forced to face the reality that I have made some at the Capitol feel uncomfortable, and disrespected," Cornish said in a statement."

Cornish faced a wave of accusations by women in recent weeks over years of alleged sexual misconduct that began to surface following a report in the online publication MinnPost about Schoen's behavior.

  Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, who'd come forward with allegations against Schoen, later released text messages in which Cornish commented on her body and said he also made remarks about her sexuality. 

Cornish apologized for the text messages as "a poor attempt at humor with a colleague." 

The more serious allegations were made by Walker, who told MPR News earlier this month about frequent overtures Cornish made toward her and released multiple messages from him inviting a sexual relationship. 

MPR News agreed at the time to not use her name in the story over her concern it would damage her career.

State legislative leaders, however, took the report seriously.

In response to her allegations, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, removed Cornish as chair of the Public Safety Committee and later agreed to hire an outside firm to investigate his conduct. That was one of the suggestions of former House Speaker Kurt Zellers, who said he had approached Cornish previously over concerns about his behavior toward women. Daudt aides said the decision to bring in an independent investigator was made before Zellers weighed in, but wasn't announced until after.

Trouble for Cornish mounted last week, however, when MPR News published a story detailing a pattern of the lawmaker's unwanted contact with staff, lobbyists and lawmakers. 

In some electronic messages, he inquired about the relationship status of women and gossiped about Capitol women he hoped to sleep with.

Some of the texts showed Cornish mixed talk about issues before his committee with more salacious messages.

Cornish, 66, served 15 years in the Minnesota House. Before he was elected in 2002, he served as a game warden in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, as a deputy sheriff in Blue Earth County and as a police officer for the city of Amboy, Minn.

Cornish is divorced, has three children and 10 grandchildren, according to a biography on his campaign website.

He is best known for his work on public safety issues and his strong support for gun rights, along with his wardrobe, which includes cowboy boots, string ties and handcuff shaped tie clips. 

As chair of the House's public safety panel, Cornish had broad discretion over which bills make it to the House floor and which will die with a negative committee vote or no hearing at all. 

During his suspension, Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, had been elevated to lead the committee.

While the matter involving Tony Cornish has been resolved, others say the process to make a complaint is broken.  

The House paid an outside investigator $275 an hour to investigate Cornish because it didn't have a policy in place to handle the lobbyist complaints. The House and Senate have policies to protect legislators and staff but it's murkier when others are victimized and want to make a complaint.

"The other people who come to the Capitol don't necessarily have any protocol to follow if they end up in a situation that is uncomfortable or is elevated to the level of harassment," said Anne Finn, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, which represents the interests of 853 cities at the Capitol.

Finn, who has served in various roles in the Capitol since 1995, said she's not aware of any lobbyist complaints being filed against a lawmaker since she started working there. She said part of the problem is that there's no formal process in place.

Finn said lobbyists could complain to a legislator or legislative leadership if they feel victimized but she said it's a risk not many lobbyists would take. She said making a complaint about a lawmaker could jeopardize a lobbyist's reputation.

"When things go wrong we need to make sure that there is a process in place to address the issue so that they don't fester," she said.

MPR News has spoken to several other lobbyists who say they won't speak publicly about any alleged harassment or the legislature's policy over concerns of retribution.

Legislative leaders have scheduled sexual harassment training for lawmakers to be held over the next three months. Daudt said he can't require every member to attend but will strip committee assignments to lawmakers who choose not to attend.

The Minnesota Government Relations Council, which represents lobbyists says it has also created a "workplace safety committee" that it hopes will be involved in any discussions legislative leaders have about changing the complaint policy, according to an email sent by the organization. 

The group is also looking to better understand the policies in place to protect lobbyists, legislators and staff, the email said.

Tom Scheck is a reporter for APM Reports. Contact him here.