Editorial: Legislature’s ethics committees often fall short

Published 10:25 pm Thursday, November 16, 2017

While the Minnesota House and Senate have ethics committees that could address recent allegations of sexual harassment by members, the victims of such harassment would not likely find the committees the answer to what appears to be a serious culture problem at the state Capitol.

Last week, allegations came to light that DFL Sen. Dan Schoen sexually harassed another DFL legislative candidate by commenting on her buttocks and, according to one report, groping her. At the same time, a DFL legislator alleged Rep. Tony Cornish sexually harassed her through a text message commenting on her body. A lobbyist accused Cornish of pursuing numerous uninvited sexual advances.

Both men deny various parts of the allegations and say they were misunderstood in others.

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DFL leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk and Gov. Mark Dayton, have called on Schoen to resign. GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt suspended Cornish from his committee chairmanship and began an investigation through House human resources.

In the Senate, leaders have said the Ethics Committee may be able to impose discipline if Schoen refused to resign. The same can be said for the Cornish case.

Both House and Senate ethics committees are made up of equal members of the majority and minority parties with a total of four members on each committee. While the bipartisan nature of the committee is essential for fairness, it also is a prescription for gridlock. It would be rare for a legislator to “cross over” and vote against one of his or her own caucus.

Both committees have standards of ethical conduct that are open to much interpretation. Both committees say complaints may be brought against a member who “violates a rule or administrative policy of the (House, Senate), that violates accepted norms of (House, Senate) behavior, that betrays the public trust, or that tends to bring the (House, Senate) into dishonor or disrepute.”

Both House and Senate ethics committees can recommend expulsion of a member, but that vote must pass by two-thirds majority in each house. That’s another high hurdle to overcome.

In the case of the Senate, if the ethics committee finds evidence that the complaint is substantiated, it refers the matter to the rules committee, which would have a majority of members from the majority party. Again, the investigation has the potential to turn partisan.

In the House, ethics committee recommendations for discipline are to be supported by “clear and convincing evidence.” That sounds straight forward, but given the cases involved in the recent harassment allegations, the parties to the issue are already disputing what was clear and convincing.

Two DFL legislators and a former candidate have suggested the governor and legislative leaders form a task force on sexual harassment and create a nonpartisan body to investigate allegations. That may be a solution.

But perhaps the sexual harassment problem at the Legislature should be solved as it is in the private sector. Legislators should be considered “employees” if not of the state, than of the people. They should be subject to the same sexual harassment laws that are imposed on employers. They are bound to fire employees for sexual harassment or face a lawsuit. End of story.

If there are legal hurdles to defining legislators as employees, the people who make the laws should change them.

Legislators should not be exempt from sexual harassment laws. Right now, they are.

— Mankato Free Press, Nov. 11

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