The Senate Ethics Committee deadlocked Friday before adjourning for a floor session over whether to begin an investigation against former Senate Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel.
A contentious — and, at times, personal — probable-cause hearing of the Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct failed on party-line votes to pass any motion.
Two motions — one to find probable cause and start an investigation, and one to dismiss the complaint — “died on a tie” along party-line votes.
The committee met for nearly three hours discussing Michel’s role in this winter’s Amy Koch scandal.
Koch, the former Senate majority leader, had an affair with ranking staffer Michael Brodkorb, who was later fired. Michel confirmed the scandal in mid-December, but fudged the timeline of how long he knew, which he was later forced to admit.
In the aftermath, Michel eventually left his leadership post.
DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul addressed the committee, arguing that there was probable cause to launch an investigation into Michel’s conduct.
Pappas told the panel that Michel provided “multiple misleading and false public statements” about when he learned of the affair.
He told reporters in a news conference on Dec. 16 that he had known about it for only “weeks.” When asked again later, Michel said he had heard the first complaint about two weeks before. But it came out later that Michel had known for nearly three months.
“The false and misleading statements provided by [Sen.] Michel constitute a breach of the public’s trust, and are unbecoming of a Minnesota senator,” Pappas said. “They tarnish the reputation of the body and bring into question its credibility.”
Pappas has called for Michel to provide more specific details about the scandal and asked for a public apology on the floor of the Senate for his rolet.
Michel, though, defended his actions.
He called on the committee to “distinguish between ethics and partisan politics.”
“I will start my statement with a phrase,” he said, “This is Monday-morning quarterbacking.”
The former leader said he was intentionally vague to preserve the anonymity of whistleblowers who came to him about the affair.
“What I did, members, is try to protect staff,” he said. “They asked for that protection.”
Adding that there’s “no playbook” to handling an affair like Koch’s, Michel said he and other GOP Senate leaders worked through the issue — with both legal and human resources professionals – as quickly and professionally as possible.
Ethics Committee Chairwoman Michelle Fischbach was forced to step in and mediate between members whose bickering at times became personal.
DFL Sens. Kathy Sheran and John Harrington both pushed back against Fischbach and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, who defended their colleague.
Harrington criticized Michel for not handling the Koch issue delicately, as Senate rules prescribe.
“Once the press conference started, all discretion left,” he said.
But Michel stood firm against criticism that he had covered up the scandal, as Pappas alleged, calling the complaint “political nonsense.”
“It’s easy to use the word ‘cover up.’ I get it. It makes for a great speech,” Michel said. “There were also marriages and families and children involved.”
In the end, the committee recessed for a busy floor session after Fischbach, also the Senate president, held it up for more than 30 minutes.
The recess left Pappas with one question: “What’s the problem with saying, ‘I’m wrong and I’m sorry?’” she asked Michel during the proceedings.