Lobbyist: Wider probe needed into Capitol harassment

Sarah Walker
Lobbyist Sarah Walker's story of being sexually harassed by state Rep. Tony Cornish helped lead to his downfall. But she's after bigger change at the Capitol.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

From the moment she arrived at the Capitol about a decade ago, criminal justice lobbyist Sarah Walker said she felt sexually pursued by Republican Rep. Tony Cornish.

In her first on-the-record interview, Walker described to MPR News on Sunday "unrelenting and never-ending" comments by the powerful lawmaker that ranged from comments on her looks to outright propositions for sex.

Cornish, of Vernon Center, will resign by the end of this week under an agreement crafted by his attorneys and a lawyer hired by Walker after she anonymously raised the accusations earlier this month. A special election has yet to be scheduled to pick a replacement.

Her decision to speak publicly now underscores what she says is a deeper mission to root out similar misconduct at the state Capitol. Walker called for a wide-ranging independent investigation of sexual harassment that she says would provide more due process for both victims and the lawmakers they would accuse.

Walker, 40, had spent years agonizing over whether speaking up would harm her career more than his. She said she worried it would damage professional relationships that are the currency of lobbying.

So, she just internalized it all.

"Speaking in very forward, sexual language and continuously propositioning and asking to go on dates. I mean it really ran the whole gamut," she said.

Sexually tinged text messages became frequent, and then there was an encounter that left her reeling. Walker said she was meeting with Cornish in his office when he told her he was aroused and she shouldn't leave. In his only interviews, Cornish has disputed that took place but he has otherwise apologized for unwelcome behavior.

MPR News tried to reach Cornish again, but didn't hear back.

"On that specific day I almost decided to leave lobbying," Walker said. "But I left work early that day actually and I went home decided that I cared more about the issues that I was working on and giving some the people in the criminal justice system a voice. I cared more about making progress in that area than what I considered was a personal affront."

It wasn't until early November when Walker decided she couldn't sit quietly anymore. The awareness of sexual harassment nationwide and the public's hunger for accountability pushed her to say something.

Her husband Brock Hunter had heard her story before in private. When she decided to go public, he took a deep breath.

"A couple weeks ago when she told me she was deciding to come forward, I had a moment of like 'OK, here we go,'" Hunter said.

He supported the decision fully.

"I never doubted it was the right thing to do," Hunter said. "And I think the timing of it was spot on."

Walker relayed her account at first anonymously in early November and provided text messages to back it up. Coming forward brought both a sense of relief and new concern. She knew Capitol insiders would know who she was.

"It was extremely anxiety-producing," she said. "I had a conversation with my husband prior to this and made it very clear that this could have huge implications. And a lot of women don't have the option of relying on their husband to support them if something was to go really wrong," Walker said.

"But once I made that decision I knew I was going to go into this for the long haul and want to see this through to make institutional changes."

Those and similar stories shared by other women helped stir Cornish's announcement that he would resign by the end of this week.

"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 written statement Tuesday before Walker revealed her identity. "To those individuals and specifically the unnamed lobbyist, I sincerely apologize for my unwelcome behavior."

Walker said she found the Cornish apology to be sincere, but also says it probably means a lot more to the women afraid to speak up.

"I wanted it to be an apology that wasn't just for me but for all of the women at the Capitol who were impacted by his behavior but also impacted by other people who may or may not still be lawmakers as well," she said.

On that last point, Walker has a new mission. She said she hopes House and Senate leaders don't view the resignations of Cornish and another accused lawmaker, state DFL Sen. Dan Schoen, as the end of the issue.

Walker wants an independent, third-party investigation of sexual harassment in general at the Capitol. She said the current system makes it too intimidating for victims to register complaints. And she said an outside probe would be the best course for legislators who could be accused next.

"While I think in these cases resignations was appropriate, I would say that the reason we ended up having to call for resignations was there was no process created that allowed for due process either for the victim or the person that was accused, and I think that is a fundamental problem," she said.

Walker has begun to think about what it will be like to return to the Capitol after all this. For her, there would be one perfect outcome.

"I'm hoping it won't be much different than normal."

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