Taxpayers may be on hook $147K for lieutenant gov. lawsuit

Taxpayers could get stuck with a nearly $147,000 legal bill accrued earlier this year during a court battle over Minnesota's lieutenant governor. 

A bill covering the legal fees of former state Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, was made public Monday. She spent months fighting a lawsuit seeking to remove her from office. She had argued she could remain a senator and serve as the state’s lieutenant governor at the same time. After the Legislature adjourned in May, she resigned her Senate seat.

The Senate is now considering whether to absorb the legal costs. A Senate subcommittee voted 2-1 on Monday to recommend to the Senate Rules Committee that it pay the invoice.

Subcommittee Chair Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said it is appropriate for the Legislature -- and thereby taxpayers -- to cover the costs because Fischbach was acting in an official capacity. Newman said the lawsuit aiming to remove her was purely political in a tightly divided chamber.

DFL Sen. Ron Latz of St. Louis Park objected to having taxpayers foot the bill. He said Fischbach could have saved the state litigation expenses by stepping down when she became lieutenant governor.

"In my vernacular, she was trying to sit on two seats with one butt," Latz said.

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Law Firm Kelley, Wolter & Scott defended Fischbach’s position in court. Attorney Kevin Magnuson said the firm gave Fischbach a 50 percent discount on their normal rates. 

Fischbach, who had been the Senate president, ascended to the role of lieutenant governor in January after Gov. Mark Dayton appointed former Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to the U.S. Senate. She stayed in the Senate until later in the year, preserving Republicans' one seat majority. The Minnesota Constitution says that when there is vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office, the Senate president gets the job.

Republicans argued Fischbach could serve in both roles at once, but Democrats said that violated the Minnesota Constitution. One of Fischbach's constituents, Destiny Dusosky, challenged her position in court. It's not clear what Dusosky's legal bills were or who will pay them, although the firm she used is a client of the state DFL Party and the Senate DFL.

In February, Ramsey County Judge John Guthmann dismissed the case, arguing it was premature because Fischbach had yet to cast any votes in her dual role. A new lawsuit was filed after session resumed and Fischbach did take some votes.

Shortly after session ended in May, Fischbach resigned from the Senate and took the oath of office to become lieutenant governor. That made the case moot.

But soon after that former Gov. Tim Pawlenty named her as his running mate in the open race for governor. The Pawlenty-Fischbach ticket lost in the August primary.

MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this story.