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

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 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.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 06/14/2011 - 11:14 am.

    Regarding apology within 140 characters, how about:

    When I said Sen. Goodwin called “people with mental illness-idiots & imbeciles” – I LIED. I apologize to Sen. Goodwin & the people of MN.

    138 characters. Not so hard.

    Assuming the tweet was done in the heat of the moment, Hoffman should have had the decency to do this without ethics committee involvement.

  2. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 06/14/2011 - 12:28 pm.

    Whether it’s Hoffman on this issue or Palin on Paul Revere…..just admit you made an error and the whole thing goes away. Pretending you’re right when the rest of the world knows otherwise just makes YOU look like the imbecile.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/14/2011 - 12:46 pm.

    This story tells us a lot about the mindset of Republican legislators, and I believe has implications that go far beyond the not very important matter at hand. Sen. Hoffman made a mistake as we all do from time to time. Instead of doing the natural thing, taking down the offending tweet, and maybe taking Sen. Goodwin aside for an apology, and perhaps even a few words of criticism, she has stubbornly made an issue which can only worsen the atmosphere between legislators which is already bad enough. This refusal to back down on anything, no matter how unsupportable, is what turned the legislature into a dysfunctional body and is what threatens to shut down the state.

  4. Submitted by will lynott on 06/14/2011 - 12:54 pm.

    And Brodkorb, the R hack/chief of staff who re-tweeted to the world? What happens to him now? Fired? Suspended? At least, will he now be required to remove the tweet from his social media and apologize to Goodwin for such a boneheaded play, like Hoffman now has to?

  5. Submitted by John Jordan on 06/14/2011 - 01:13 pm.

    When do you suppose they’ll make Rep. Ryan Winkler apologize for his abuse of private citizens from his Twitter account? Double standard.

  6. Submitted by Steve Rose on 06/14/2011 - 01:46 pm.

    “Thomas Bottern, Senate counsel, said to his knowledge this is the first ethics complaint regarding social media in the body’s history.”

    Perhaps true for the Senate, but not for the legislature, as Rep. Paul Gardner, DFL-Shoreview knows (May 2009 Tweets).

  7. Submitted by J E Strader on 06/14/2011 - 01:57 pm.

    Hoffman needs to learn how to parse a sentence before she reacts to it. I had a nun in fifth grade who could explain it to her in terms suited to the meanest understanding.

    As to not being able to apologize in 140 characters? Try something like “I was wrong about Goodwin. She never called anyone an idiot or an imbecile. So sorry. My bad.” I recommend leaving off the smiley face.

  8. Submitted by Chris Reynolds on 06/14/2011 - 02:09 pm.

    2 pm Tuesday – no removal of the LIE yet from Sen. Hoffman’s Twitter log.

    Strange that a day is insufficient time to remove a post that was so quickly put up in the first place.

  9. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 06/14/2011 - 03:01 pm.

    Hoffman made false and defamatory statements about Goodwin. The fact that it came in a tweet, as opposed to an email or a quote to a newspaper reporter is irrelevant.

  10. Submitted by Mike Skoglund on 06/14/2011 - 03:55 pm.

    @will lynott — I don’t think these rules apply to folks like Brodkorb (I’m assuming the “spokesman for the Senate Republican Caucus” isn’t actually an employee of the state government) but it probably doesn’t matter anyway, given the lack of any actual consequences.

    @John Jordan — The complaint was based on the Senate’s rules regarding false statements: “A member shall not publish or distribute written material if the member knows or has reason to know that the material includes any statement that is false or clearly misleading, concerning a public policy issue or concerning the member’s or another member’s voting record or position on a public policy issue.” That rule has nothing to do with ordinary tweets (even if someone’s feelings are hurt) and, in any event, it wouldn’t apply to a state rep.

  11. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/14/2011 - 04:01 pm.

    Knaak needs to read “1984” and find out what the “thought police” are. They investigated what people were thinking, not what they actually said. Hoffman said something. This was nothing to do with her thoughts.

    And the confusion about Twitter — good grief. The rule is you can’t knowingly say something false about another legislator. What does the place it was said have to do with it?

  12. Submitted by John Olson on 06/14/2011 - 04:08 pm.

    I’ll see your Winkler and raise you two Hackbarths.

  13. Submitted by will lynott on 06/14/2011 - 06:16 pm.

    Mike #10, no offense, but I know that. My question was largely rhetorical. That said, now that a bipartisan committee of their peers has found Hoffman guilty as sin, will they now have the integrity to take the appropriate action against Brodkorb, whose sin is at least as egregious as Hoffman’s?

    Yeah, probably not. He is a state employee, BTW. He works for the republican caucus.

    John #5, this is news to me. Please elaborate.

  14. Submitted by Steve Rose on 06/14/2011 - 07:06 pm.

    I’ll see your Weiner, and raise you one Gardner.

  15. Submitted by Michael O'Connor on 06/15/2011 - 12:46 am.

    Now is not the time to quibble about tweets. Legislators, you have much more serious work to finish!

  16. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/15/2011 - 12:51 pm.

    Sen. Hoffman still hasn’t taken down the tweet. I just find this so amazing.

  17. Submitted by will lynott on 06/16/2011 - 10:15 am.

    Has she apologized yet?

  18. Submitted by Elizabeth Halvorson on 06/17/2011 - 03:44 pm.

    I beg to differ with this story. Hoffman didn’t “mischaracterize” or send an “inflammatory” tweet. She lied about a fellow senator. Lied. Please call it what it was. And is this inconsequential and a waste of everyone’s time? No. Elected officials lying about issues and opposing parties is one of the most serious issues we have to face at this time in our history. This is an important story. I hope the other media will give it the prominence it deserves.

  19. Submitted by Arthur Swenson on 06/21/2011 - 06:48 am.

    This is what you get when you elect people who live by the “”WIN AT ANY COST’ mantra.

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