Republican state Rep. Jim Knoblach abruptly ended his re-election campaign Friday as MPR News prepared to publish detailed accusations from his daughter of inappropriate behavior toward her since childhood.
The announcement came hours after an attorney for Knoblach denied the allegations in an interview.
Knoblach, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, declined to be interviewed after being approached more than a week ago.
In a written statement, Knoblach called the allegations "indescribably hurtful" and said he would work toward healing his family.
"I love my children more than anything, and would never do anything to hurt them. Her allegations are false," Knoblach wrote. "I and other family members have made repeated attempts to reconcile with her in recent years, but she has refused."
The timing of his exit could make his St. Cloud-area seat, already a top target for Democrats, impossible for Republicans to hold, barring some kind of court intervention or a write-in campaign by a substitute candidate. Knoblach was seeking a ninth term and was being challenged by Democratic candidate Dan Wolgamott, also of St. Cloud. Knoblach plans to serve out his term.
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Knoblach's daughter, Laura, alleges that the prominent legislator inappropriately touched her for most of her life, behavior she confided to close friends, family and authority figures at her school and church for more than a decade.
She said she decided to tell her story to MPR News after exhausting other means to hold her father accountable, including a 2017 investigation by local law enforcement. No charges resulted. She provided MPR News with extensive documentation about her attempts to get help.
Laura Knoblach, 23, said she first remembers her father, an eight-term state representative, touching her when she was 9 years old. He came into her room after she'd gone to bed and climbed in and laid down behind her.
"He would put his arm around me and not let me get up or get away and he would lick my neck or bite my ear," she said in an interview with MPR News.
These visits to her room, or similar kissing across her arms and neck and biting her ears while they watched movies on the couch, happened so often throughout her childhood and teenage years it became a defining part of her relationship with her father, she said.
There were other routine behaviors, she said, including more than 30 instances where her father approached her from behind and pressed his body against hers in the kitchen of their home, pinning her against the refrigerator or dishwasher and using his weight and strength to keep her from getting away.
On one occasion as a 15-year-old girl, she said her father held her down and asked her if she liked the kissing and playing, and that she responded yes because she felt afraid and like she had no choice.
Susan Gaertner, Jim Knoblach's attorney, said while her client denied the allegations, he "does not want to drag his family through six weeks of hell."
Gaertner suggested Laura Knoblach disagrees with her father's political beliefs and her actions are politically motivated.
"There have been family conflicts, as is true of any family, some of them have been quite difficult," Gaertner told MPR News. "You add a layer of family conflicts to politics, and that makes the situation even more difficult."
But Laura Knoblach said the inappropriate behavior continued from ages 9 to 21, including an incident in 2015, when she was 20, where she said her father pinned her against a car and licked and kissed her neck.
In December of 2016, after she moved away from her family to Boulder, Colo., she posted to her Facebook page that her family had tried to "silence" her about the behavior she described but that it was important to speak out. After a burst of media attention and pressure from her family, she said she removed the post, but that an uncle of Laura's contacted the police.
In January of 2017, the St. Cloud Police Department and Sherburne County Sheriff's Office opened an investigation into the case and two officers traveled to Boulder to interview Laura Knoblach.
Two months later, the case was closed and the Sherburne County Attorney's Office declined to press charges because there was "insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jim Knoblach had committed a crime."
According to the file, an investigator told Laura Knoblach that her father's behavior didn't cross any of the five degrees of criminal sexual conduct as defined in state law.
Laura Knoblach requested transcripts from the Sherburne County Sheriff's Office and gave MPR News a copy of her case file. In August, she obtained audio recordings of her case file and gave those to MPR News as well.
The transcripts and audio establish a timeline of more than a decade, when Laura Knoblach continuously reached out to various people for help, telling one friend that her father treated her in ways that were "more appropriate for her mom."
Her accounts in the case file, audio recordings, in interviews with MPR News and recounted by her friends and other figures in the community are consistent throughout.
In the transcript, one officer expressed regret that there wasn't more he could do to help Laura Knoblach.
The case file is detailed, including written transcripts of interviews, copies of old diary entries and handwritten notes, but it makes no mention of law enforcement reaching out to Jim Knoblach to be interviewed.
Gaertner, who is also not mentioned in the case file, said he declined to be interviewed for the investigation through her.
The allegations come in the midst of the #MeToo movement, a national reckoning across the nation over sexual harassment and assault that's swept up institutions like Hollywood — and lawmakers aren't immune.
Gaertner said Jim Knoblach doesn't believe he will get a fair airing by the voters in November.
"These claims are hurtful, these claims are damaging to his reputation, these claims are untrue," she said. "These claims are being made in an environment, the #MeToo era, that makes it extremely difficult to defend yourself."
As she grew older, especially as she started dating, Laura Knoblach said it became impossible to deny her father's behavior was inappropriate, even if he never touched her exposed intimate body parts or exposed himself.
"I had started dating someone and I was having all these flashbacks and that was really what set me off to be like, maybe this wasn't something that wasn't just weird. I'm like, my boyfriend kisses me and I'm thinking of my dad, that's weird," she said. "Then I started having these kind of nightmares about it and I started working through it with my boyfriend at the time."
While Laura Knoblach talked to police in 2017, it wasn't the first time she shared her story about interactions with her father.
Laura Knoblach's case file reveals she reached out to various people throughout her life to express concerns about her father's behavior, including her mother, Janet Knoblach.
On several occasions, Laura Knoblach said she told her mother that her father was making her feel uncomfortable, but that her mother usually shrugged it off, saying Jim didn't grow up with sisters and implying he didn't understand how to interact with girls.
"You had that reinforcement every single time you tried to go for help and were told, Oh, he just doesn't understand, you know?'" Laura Knoblach told MPR News. "I really minimized it a lot, even though I was really uncomfortable with it."
The case file shows that Janet Knoblach, through an attorney, declined to talk with investigators.
The file also includes interviews with three friends and a cousin who Laura Knoblach confided in at various points about her father's behavior. She also told a school teacher about what was going on, as well as a local youth ministry leader at her church in St. Cloud.
Laura Knoblach's cousin, Isabelle Hughes, talked to investigators and agreed to be interviewed by MPR News. Hughes said her cousin confided in her when she was in fifth grade and Laura Knoblach was in eighth grade, about a decade ago.
She said Laura Knoblach told her that Jim Knoblach was touching and kissing her inappropriately, but asked her cousin not to tell anyone because her parents told her not to tell anyone.
"It was really scary and I didn't know what to do and I didn't tell anyone, which I'm kind of sad about," Hughes said.
One of Laura Knoblach's best friends from her childhood, Danielle Pullis, told MPR News she felt uncomfortable around Jim Knoblach on several occasions throughout junior high and high school because of the way he would touch and interact with his daughter.
"He just put his hands around her waist and pulled her onto his lap, so I said, I thought it was weird I thought it was inappropriate, but not criminal, unfortunately," she said. She also spoke to investigators, noting in the report that Jim Knoblach was always "very focused" on his daughter.
When she was in seventh grade, Laura Knoblach told another friend that her father made her uncomfortable and his affection was "more appropriate for her mom" than his daughter, according to the case file. MPR News is not naming her to protect her privacy.
Also according to the case file, a youth pastor of Laura Knoblach told law enforcement that she confided in him between 2011 and 2012 that her father made her very uncomfortable through actions like extended hugs, lying next to her in bed, and trying to get her to sit on his lap.
That pastor told authorities he called Child Protection Services in Stearns County, but was told the claims didn't sound serious enough to be considered sexual abuse. MPR News tried to contact CPS but the records are not public because the agency deals with minors.
MPR News agreed to withhold the name of the youth pastor to protect his privacy, but he confirmed to MPR News what he told investigators.
Growing up in the St. Cloud area, Laura Knoblach attended St. Cloud Christian school, a private school where she confided in a teacher. MPR News is not naming the teacher, who didn't answer multiple interview requests.
The teacher provided investigators with a copy of a note he wrote to the school principal on Jan. 30, 2013, about allegations Laura Knoblach made against her father about him showing affection to her in ways that made her feel uncomfortable. A copy of that note is in the case file.
St. Cloud Christian School told authorities the school has no record of the note, according to the case file. The school did not respond to a request for comment.
The school's public financial records show Jim Knoblach served on the school board from 2007 to 2011 and as board treasurer in 2011.
'Inappropriate, but not criminal'
In a more than two-hour interview at the Boulder police department in January of 2017, Laura Knoblach described behavior she said spanned more than a decade, including spooning and grinding his body against hers, kisses on her body and biting her ears.
"Sometimes he would start at my forearm and then work his way up to my shoulder and neck and ear and it was super uncomfortable," she told law enforcement.
Other times he came into her room to pray and would lift up her shirt and kiss her across her stomach, she said. He also counted the vertebrae on her back, she said, using it as an excuse to touch her butt and kiss her neck. In every case, she said her father would use his arms or body weight to keep her from moving.
In 2015, Laura Knoblach, then 20 years old, was back home for the Fourth of July and her parents were shooting fireworks off in the backyard.
"I was walking back in [and] my dad just grabs me and like throws me up against a car and he basically grabbed each of my wrists and like pinned my wrists above my head and just started like making out slobbering open mouth kisses with tongue on my neck and biting my ear," she said.
Later that night, Laura Knoblach said the family was watching a movie together and her father put his face between her legs repeatedly, kissing and licking up her legs.
At one point, according to Laura Knoblach, her mother told him to stop because it was inappropriate to do that to his adult daughter, but that her father laughed and continued the behavior.
The latest incident, she said, happened in March of 2016, when her father came to Florida to watch her compete in a bicycle race. She said she was pulling her bicycle out of the back and bent over and Jim came up behind her and pulled her lower half closer to him.
"I remember pushing him away and he just acted like he was super, super hurt," Laura Knoblach said, according to the case file. "He acted like I had, like, rejected him."
According to the transcript, St. Cloud police officer Trent Fischer told Laura Knoblach that her father's actions were "really inappropriate but not criminal."
Minnesota law has five degrees of criminal sexual conduct, covering everything from rape to other nonconsensual sexual contact, such as trying to remove someone's clothing or masturbating in front of a child under 16.
Fischer told Laura Knoblach they wouldn't be able to bring charges because her father did not expose himself or touch her under her clothes. The officer asked her to remember anything else that could help build a case.
"I don't think there's much of a doubt in my mind that he knew what he was doing," Fischer said, according to the transcript. "And that he knew what he was doing was wrong."
Knoblach was first elected in 1994 but left the House to wage an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2006. He returned to the Legislature in 2014 and is among the most powerful figures at the Capitol.
He's the chair of the House Ways and Means committee, where every request for more funding or proposals to slash programs must flow through. He immerses himself in details, able to recite patterns in program budgets off the top of his head.
And he's a critical figure in bringing funding back to his district.
In March of 2017, Jeffrey Oxton, the assistant chief of police in the St. Cloud Police Department, sent Jim Knoblach an email asking him to support efforts to add more agents to the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, according to a data practices request of correspondence between St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis and Jim Knoblach around the time of the investigation.
Several of those agents could be stationed in St. Cloud, Oxton noted, which "would offer significant benefits to the citizens of St. Cloud and Central Minnesota."
"I will certainly advocate for this as the bill goes to conference committee," the lawmaker wrote back.
Knoblach has also sponsored bills in recent years that have gotten attention, including one to limit broadcast coverage of court proceedings. In that effort, Knoblach drew the backing of advocates for the sexually abused, who argued cameras in the courtroom could discourage victims from testifying.
Outside of his legislative work, Knoblach is a prominent businessman who owns his own real estate company and has given generously to charities and foundations throughout the region, including more than $250,000 to the Central Minnesota Community Foundation and more than $10,000 to CentraCare Health Foundation.
He's also been involved in local charities for years, currently serving on the board of the St. Cloud Salvation Army Board of Advisors, Central Minnesota Boy Scout Council and he previously served on the board of Big Brother, with Big Brothers, Big Sisters and the Saint John's University Board of Regents.
His influence in the community was a focus of many of Laura Knoblach's immediate family members, who have repeatedly tried to keep her from going public.
While her parents weren't interviewed for the investigation, the case file does include interviews with other members of Laura Knoblach's close family, including her maternal grandmother, Ellen Hughes.
Hughes told investigators she never noticed anything out of the ordinary with her son-in-law Jim and his children.
Attempts by MPR News to contact Ellen Hughes went unanswered.
But in emails between Laura Knoblach and her grandmother included in the case file, Hughes told her that her father is an important figure in the community and she should consider how speaking out about his behavior will impact his ability to do his work.
"The community loses because there will be no more events that raise $36,000 in one evening to keep the Salvation Army going at it's low point every fall," Hughes wrote to her granddaughter. "But you, yourself, will be the greatest loser in the long term. You will lose your family."
Laura Knoblach said her home life had deteriorated so badly by the time she was a senior in high school that she was regularly staying over at friends' houses, sometimes even sleeping in her car near the Mississippi River to avoid going home to her parents.
Gaertner said Jim Knoblach didn't find out about his daughter's accusations until late fall of 2016.
"His concern has been, 'Why are you saying these things? I haven't done anything that I thought was inappropriate. I haven't done anything with the intent to hurt your feelings. I certainly haven't done anything that was sexual in nature, so help me understand what's going on,'" Gaertner said.
At one point, the family did attempt to seek counseling, according to the file.
In 2016, before the criminal investigation, Laura Knoblach said her parents arranged for the three of them to talk by phone with a counselor. Laura Knoblach said that after she laid out her concerns, Jim said he didn't remember any of the instances she was talking about.
"I was like, really? I just told you stuff that's been going on for over 10 years, this is our entire relationship, you've done this stuff like weekly for my entire life, and I'm like, how can you just not remember that?" she told MPR News. "He said, 'I'm sorry you took it wrong, if indeed I did do any of those things, I'm sorry you took it the wrong way.'"
In January of 2017, after she reported the allegations to the police, Laura Knoblach said she reached out to her mother because she was struggling financially. She says her mother told her she was upset with her for reporting her allegations to police.
"She goes, 'I don't ever want to speak to you again,' and just hangs up the phone, and I was like, oh my God, I don't know what to do," Laura said.
Laura Knoblach said that night she was alone in her apartment and thought about harming herself, but instead walked into an emergency room in Boulder and was admitted to an in-patient psychiatric facility for two nights. "That was the breaking point where I just couldn't do it," she said.
Laura Knoblach's medical records, which she also shared with MPR news, show doctors told her she had suffered a major depressive episode and gave her a short-term prescription for medication before setting her up with a counselor she could see regularly after that.
Laura Knoblach says she saw the counselor until May 2017. The records show Laura Knoblach had no prior psychiatric history.
New life in Colorado
At her apartment in Boulder, Laura Knoblach said she's spent the last year sorting out her feelings and talking with a counselor. At this point in her life, she's shifting gears and focusing on training for Ironman competitions around the world.
She dug into boxes and pulled out a few medals she's won. One was for a "deca continuous," she said, where the participant swims 24 miles, bikes more than 1,000 miles and runs 262 miles.
She said the friends she's met through racing are now like family to her.
She's not speaking with her immediate family members anymore, who she said are trying to paint her as untruthful and unstable.
"My entire family had been like, 'You'll lose your family and you're doing this terrible thing, and if he loses the next election it is your fault," she said. "And you know, even after I posted this on Facebook they're like, 'Your dad's boss said this to him and that's your fault.'"
She said she knows it will take time for her to heal, but that she can't move forward without telling her story. She also knows there's likely to be backlash.
"Nobody likes whistleblowers," she said. "There's still going to be a lot of people who will say, 'Oh, so now dads can't hug their daughters anymore?'"
"The hardest part hasn't really been not being believed, it's been having people try to convince me that I'm the bad guy, having people try to convince me that this person is just confused," she added. "If people don't believe you, that is their prerogative, but it is another thing to try to convince you you're taking it the wrong way."
According to the case file interview with Laura Knoblach's grandmother, Ellen Hughes told investigators that she believes her granddaughter may be speaking out to try and create a cause or a reason to run her rigorous races.
Laura Knoblach said racing may have saved her life.
"One of the reasons I really got into it was kind of as a coping mechanism," she said. "
"I think, struggling with depression and anxiety as a result of this, I don't know, it helps when, like, you feel like you can't get out of bed but you know you have to kick yourself out of bed because you have to go for a bike ride," she said, adding "otherwise, you know, in six months you're not going to be able to do what you want to do."
She plans to stay in Colorado and continue racing.
Reporters Brian Bakst and Tom Scheck, and digital producer William Lager contributed to this report.