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Sen. Gretchen Hoffman ordered to apologize in first Senate ethics complaint involving social media

The ethics subcommittee told her to issue a written apology over a tweet she sent that mischaracterized DFL Sen. Barb Goodwin’s late-May speech on the Senate floor.

Attorney Fritz Knaak, right, unsuccessfully urged the committee to refrain from acting like Orwell's "Thought Police" in regard to Sen. Gretchen Hoffman's tweet.
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Attorney Fritz Knaak, right, unsuccessfully urged the committee to refrain from acting like Orwell’s “Thought Police” in regard to Sen. Gretchen Hoffman’s tweet.

Twitter seems to be getting to some Minnesota lawmakers, both seasoned veterans and freshmen newcomers.

While some legislators have used social media effectively to air their views in cyberspace, others, like freshman GOP Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, have faced backlash for inflammatory tweets sent to their followers.

Others seem perplexed by the whole social media phenomenon, and it showed during the nearly six-hour Monday meeting that ended with a legislative ethics subcommittee ordering an apology.

The subcommittee voted that Hoffman, a freshman senator from Vergas must offer a written apology to DFL Sen. Barb Goodwin of Columbia Heights over a tweet Hoffman sent that mischaracterized a late-May speech by Goodwin on the Senate floor.

First ethics complaint over social media
The kicker? Hoffman must also remove the offending tweet and link to the subcommittee’s resolution on the matter. Thomas Bottern, Senate counsel, said to his knowledge this is the first ethics complaint regarding social media in the body’s history.

As debate between Goodwin and others heated up before the vote on the Health and Human Services omnibus bill in late May, Goodwin talked about the history of state institutions for the mentally disabled.

Noting the progress Minnesota has made in treating people with mental disabilities since some of the troubling practices of the late 1800s as context, Goodwin argued that the cuts included in this year’s HHS omnibus bill to community-based services were too big to swallow.

“This is how far we’ve come: the way state institutions used to be — they were called ‘Institutions for Idiots, Imbeciles and the Insane,’ ” Goodwin said on the Senate floor in her commentary against the bill.

Goodwin added: “We might not have the 10 state ‘Hospitals for the Idiots and the Insane and the Imbeciles’ like we used to, but that’s because a lot of people put a lot of hard work and logic into how to develop the basic services that we need in our communities.”

Hoffman, a registered nurse, quickly tweeted: “#Sen Goodwin just called people with mental illness-idiots and imbeciles- while debating HHS bill #offensive #mndfl #mnsrc #mnleg.”

Michael Brodkorb, deputy chair of the state GOP and spokesman for the Senate Republican Caucus, then re-tweeted the message.

Days later, after the Senate complaint had been filed, Hoffman released a statement reaffirming the tweet. “Until the Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct completes [its] work, I have no further comment,” she wrote at the end of the release.

“I think it’s very clear that [Hoffman] mischaracterized Sen. Goodwin’s speech, and she misled the public,” said DFL Sen. Ann Rest, who filed the ethics complaint on behalf of Goodwin.

Hoffman didn’t testify at the meeting.

Fritz Knaak, an attorney and former GOP legislator who also represented GOP freshman Sen. Scott Newman in an unrelated ethics complaint hearing, unsuccessfully urged the committee to refrain from acting like Orwell’s “Thought Police” and said Hoffman “remains upset by [Goodwin’s] comments.”

This is the second ethics complaint against a GOP senator in 2011. Bottern said they come up once every couple years.

Newman, who emerged unscathed from his complaint hearing in February, fared better than Hoffman.

The committee found her tweet and statement were “clearly misleading with respect to [Sen.] Goodwin’s position regarding the public policy concerning the treatment of individuals with mental illnesses and disabilities, in violation of Senate Rule 56.2.”

Although the hearing was originally intended to determine whether there was probable cause to begin an investigation into the matter, the group of four senators — two DFLers and two Republicans — determined that the facts were pretty obvious. Instead, they opted to remove the complaint pending an apology.

The tweet still appears on Hoffman’s Twitter profile nearly a month later. But that will need to change. Sen. Michelle Fischbach, chairwoman of the subcommittee, must be assured that Hoffman has both apologized and removed the tweet before the complaint is dismissed.

It took hours of debate — and Knaak’s near departure — to reach that point. DFLers, in a rare position of equality, held strong that Hoffman must apologize both in writing and link to the committee resolution via Twitter.

Fischbach and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, originally said they were wary of dictating what a fellow colleague could say on social media.

“I’m really uncomfortable telling someone exactly what to put on her Twitter account,” Fischbach said.

After the meeting adjourned Monday evening, Goodwin said she was pleased with the outcome. “I’m very satisfied with what the ethics committee did,” Goodwin said. “We want to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future.”

“I’m hoping for a decent apology and a sincere apology,” she added.

Lawmakers and social media
Much of the confusion and debate that swirled around the Hoffman ethics complaint hearing stemmed from the committee members’ seeming unfamiliarity with Twitter and social media.

According to recent data from a Washington, D.C.-based PR firm, about one-third of state lawmakers nationwide use Facebook and more than 10 percent of legislators throughout the nation have Twitter accounts — although websites like TweetMN.com show that percentage is likely higher in Minnesota.

None of the four lawmakers on the ethics committee were familiar with Twitter.

“I struggle with this Twitter, tweeter thing we’ve got out there,” said Ingebrigtsen.

While debating the pros and cons of forcing Hoffman to apologize to Goodwin via Twitter, there was some doubt about whether her words would fit within the allotted space limit.

“I’m not a Twitterer person,” Fischbach said, “so I don’t think [140 characters] is sufficient to explain.”

One DFLer on the committee, Sen. John Harrington, added it up and discovered that it’s possible.

The lawmakers’ unfamiliarity with Twitter seemed to exasperate some of their more tech-savvy colleagues.

“It is painful listening to non-tweeting senators discuss how Twitter might or might not be utilized,” said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, in a tweet.