Ethics panel splits on Michel's handling of leader's affair
ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Senate Ethics Committee stalled along party lines Friday when trying to decide if a senator breached legislative ethics in dealing with an affair between the then-Senate majority leader and an employee.
The panel twice split 2-2 about whether Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, acted quickly enough and was discreet in handling an affair between Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, and Senate GOP Communications Director Michael Brodkorb. Committee work was interrupted when the full Senate went into session, delaying any final action.
Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, brought ethics charges against Michel, who as deputy majority leader in September learned of the affair. Pappas testified that Michel did not confront Koch about the issue until December and he lied to the media.
"The false and misleading statements provided by Sen. Michel constitute breach of the public's trust and are unbecoming of a Minnesota senator," Pappas told the ethics committee. "They tarnish the reputation of the body and bring into question its credibility, as well as the individual senator's trustworthiness."
Pappas handed out a transcript of a Dec. 16 news conference in which Michel and other Republican senators revealed the inappropriate relationship. It showed that Michel said he learned of the affair a "couple of weeks" earlier; later, Michel admitted he had known of the affair nearly three months.
Committee members did not agree that was a lie.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, defended Michel for trying to settle the situation.
"I'm not so sure what I would have done different," Ingebrigtsen said.
Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said that it appeared Ingebrigtsen was saying that "misleading is OK."
She told Michel: "You chose to be deceptive."
Committee Chairwoman Sen. Michele Fischbach, R-Paynesville, called Michel's comments about how long he had known about the affair "vague rather than actually false statements."
Michel said he avoided providing reporters with specifics to keep from identifying staffers who reported the affair.
He said GOP senators rushed into the Dec. 16 news availability because the word about the affair already was spreading and they needed to react quickly. He called the news conference minutes after a Capitol reporter's tweet mentioned a Koch affair.
Looking at reporters covering Friday's hearing, Michel said: "This 21st century media, you guys act quickly."
Fischbach often stopped Michel from answering questions, saying that many comments could affect a lawsuit Brodkorb says he will file against the Senate. He claims he was fired, but female Senate employees who had affairs with male senators have kept their jobs.
Sheran said the restrictions due to the expected lawsuit mean the ethics committee cannot investigate whether Michel operated with sufficient speed, but she said the question still remains about whether he misled the public through the press.
Fischbach said it was not clear what would change after the Friday afternoon meeting that could result in a decision after two tie votes. Senate rules require the committee decide one way or the other or schedule a specific time to meet again. The committee was to meet again after the Senate finished a voter photo identification debate, which was expected to run well into Friday night.
Following the afternoon hearing, Pappas said she was frustrated by the lawsuit threat because she expected to be able to investigate the issue.
Michel quit his leadership job after Koch resigned as majority leader in December and he has since said he will not run for Senate again.
Friday's committee meeting was unusual in that most Republican senators attended the meeting in support of Michel. Pappas and two committee members were the only Democratic senators in the room.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.