Johnson admits embellishing

ST. PAUL -- Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, a Lutheran pastor, confessed to Minnesotans Friday, admitting he was "not completely accurate" in relating conversations with Supreme Court justices.

ST. PAUL -- Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, a Lutheran pastor, confessed to Minnesotans Friday, admitting he was "not completely accurate" in relating conversations with Supreme Court justices.

The Willmar Democrat said his comments were "sanding off the truth," but would not confess to a lie, which he said would be intending to deceive.

"I embellished it. I did. And it's wrong," Johnson told Capitol reporters packed into his office for a rare public apology from a top state policy-maker.

"I apologize to all of you and to the people of this state," Johnson said. "I made a mistake."

The apology stems from a Jan. 19 comment he made to the New London-Spicer Ministerial Association, which was secretly recorded by Brent Waldemarsen, senior pastor at Harvest Community Church of God in Willmar.


Johnson had been asked to guarantee that an existing state law would be enough to prevent gays from marrying.

Conservative groups have pushed hard for a constitutional amendment to prohibit gays from getting marrying and blame Johnson for blocking a Senate vote. Amendment supporters say they fear the courts will overturn the state's anti-gay-marriage law.

Johnson told the ministers that he talked to Minnesota Supreme Court justices about the law: "All of them said, every one of them including the lady who just stepped down, Kathleen Blatz ... you know what her response was? 'Dean, we all stand for election, too, every six years,' she said. 'We are not going to touch it.' That's what she said to me. I have talked to Justice Anderson and the other Justice Anderson, 'Dean, we're not going to do this, you know, we're not going to do this.'"

Blatz and current Chief Justice Russell Anderson denied telling Johnson that.

"I take any suggestion of judicial impropriety very seriously," Anderson said in a statement. "I have spoken with every member of my court and my predecessor and I can say with confidence that no member of the Supreme Court has made any commitment to Sen. Johnson on this matter."

Supreme Court officials have refused access to the justices for interviews on the situation.

On Friday, Johnson said he only talked to one justice -- whom he would not identify -- in a brief conversation.

After he asked the justice about the gay marriage law, "the person kind of shrugged their shoulders and said, 'Yes, we have a law.' That's it."


Johnson said he had not personally talked to or apologized to justices or senators.

Sen. Cal Larson, R-Fergus Falls, said Johnson did more than "embellish" the truth.

"That is just amazing that he has not admitted to the fact that he didn't tell the truth," Larson said. "If he is completely wrong, that is what he should have said. He should not have covered up."

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said Johnson handled a bad situation well.

"We don't think he should have said what he said," Langseth said of his Democratic colleagues, but the senator predicted Johnson will not face a problem keeping his leadership position.

Langseth said that in his 32 years as a lawmaker, he does not recall an apology like Johnson delivered.

Johnson fought back tears and was emotional during the half-hour grilling by reporters.

The senator, a legislator since 1978, said he woke up Friday morning after spending two days with National Guard troops departing for Iraq and decided to apologize for the comments that pro-amendment supporters released Wednesday.


Johnson's apology was not good enough for one of the two main organizations pushing for the amendment.

"Nothing has changed," said Chuck Darrell, communications director for Minnesota for Marriage. "Sen. Johnson is still playing politics with the definition of marriage."

State Republican Chairman Ron Carey said Johnson lied.

"How can we trust anything else Sen. Johnson has said from this time forward?" he asked.

The Republican Party is launching a series of radio commercials, to be followed by print advertisements, in Johnson's Senate district. Some Twin Cities radio stations also will air the spots, which urge voters to call Johnson's office "and tell him Minnesotans deserve to vote on this important issue."

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, tried to downplay the comment from his political rival.

"The whole (gay marriage) issue would go away if the Senate would just vote," Sviggum said. "You don't need to do any more rationalizations, any more covering their butts if they would just vote."

When asked if he ever embellished the truth, Sviggum replied: "If embellish means put my own spin or bias on something, I'm sure I have done that on numerous occasions. If embellish means do I say things that are not true? I don't think I have done that."


Johnson's meeting with the media was unusually sober.

"The words that I said on the tape were poorly chosen and not completely accurate," he said soon after beginning a statement.

Johnson said he was becoming frustrated with the tone of the New London-Spicer meeting. One minister said he felt the Ten Commandments should be put in the Constitution, Johnson said.

The senator said he leans against voting for the amendment, but could change his mind after hearing testimony.

The senator, a National Guard chaplain, said if words in the Bible were taken literally, gay marriages would be a sin. But he said he interprets the Bible as being kind and giving people second chances. He said he never has officiated at a gay wedding.

Minnesota has a long-standing law, upheld by the Supreme Court, which bans gay marriages. However, amendment proponents say courts easily can overturn the law, but could not if it were part of the Constitution.

Those supporting the amendment held a large rally in Willmar earlier this year, with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sviggum among those supporting it. Johnson last month said they "had their cannons aimed at Willmar."

Both sides of the gay marriage issue plan Capitol rallies in coming days.


Amendment supporters are at the Capitol nearly daily, holding signs urging Johnson and other Senate leaders to allow an amendment vote in the full body. If the Senate approves the amendment -- the House already has -- the public would vote on it in the Nov. 7 general election.

Johnson said the tape was released this week to pressure and embarrass him. He said he prayed for the minister who made the recording, although the senator said the action was disrespectful and unprofessional.

"The good book says we should pray for our enemies," Johnson said.

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