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Republicans struggle to put Michel complaint behind them

The GOP’s strategy at last week’s ethics hearing only created more buzz and raised more questions.

Sen. Geoff Michel consulting with his attorney at Friday's Ethics Committee hearing.

If state Senate Republicans were hoping Friday’s floor debate on voter ID would drown out the ethics hearing on Sen. Geoff Michel, they were mistaken.

It’s becoming the trademark of how the majority caucus has handled fallout from the affair between former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and former Senate GOP communications director Michael Brodkorb. Any attempt to put the scandal behind them creates more buzz and raises more questions.

The hearing into the complaint that Michel deliberately misstated when Republican leaders acted on the affair stumbled from the start. Republican Chair Michelle Fischbach tried and failed to convince the panel’s two DFLers that Brodkorb’s pending lawsuit severely restricted Michel from disclosing many details. Instead, under sharp questioning, Michel, Fischbach and Republican Bill Ingebrigtsen were forced to dodge and weave, leaving the impression they were clouding instead of clearing the air.

After a nearly three-hour debate, the committee deadlocked on whether to dismiss the complaint, filed by Sen. Sandy Pappas, or find probable cause to proceed with an investigation. The plan was to reconvene after the Senate debate on the voter ID amendment.  But Fischbach, with her DFL colleagues waiting in the hearing room, canceled the meeting via a news release with the promise that action would be taken “within 30 days of receiving the complaint.”

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DFLers were steaming.

“The only action that is legitimate to adjourn the committee” has to come with a vote, said DFL committee member Kathy Sheran. “Senator Fischbach has no authority to unilaterally change that.”

Sheran said that during the Senate floor debate Fischbach had approached her and fellow DFL committee member John Harrington about not reconvening so Fischbach could get more information about the legal boundaries of the case. “But her timeline for meeting again was too vague,” Sheran said.  

Pointed questions

The hearing’s outcome may have been unavoidable. DFLers had pointed questions: How many staff members had complained about the affair? When, specifically, did Michel confront Koch? And who in Senate human resources was consulted?

The answers to those questions could be important in a wrongful termination lawsuit Brodkorb may bring. Republicans stated at the outset that the potential lawsuit limited their responses.

But ultimately, unless the hearing is never reconvened, the ethics committee will have to come to a resolution. Because the even partisan split is designed to produce a bipartisan conclusion, a decision will require the patience and the strategy of a chess game. But Republican leaders in both houses have indicated they want the 2012 legislative session to conclude as soon as possible.  

Michel characterized the ethics complaint as “just part of the game of politics.” In noting the DFL timing of the complaint, he observed there was no point in addressing a scandal in January when you can keep it going until March. 

And into April. The DFL minority still has a few more weeks to turn the fizzled hearing into a political opportunity. At a minimum, they can ask when, and if, the hearing will be rescheduled. Even more likely, they can call for a ruling on the procedural dispute.

As Republican Ingebrigtsen lamented during the hearing: “It’s all dragging us through the mud even further.”