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Senate ethics panel deadlocks again over complaint against Sen. Geoff Michel

The four-member subcommittee was unable to agree in March — and on Tuesday — whether to drop the matter or investigate further.

Sen. Geoff Michel sat quietly as the ethics hearing against him again stalled.

For the second time, a Senate ethics panel was unable to reach accord on an ethics complaint against former Senate leader Geoff Michel for his role in explaining the Amy Koch scandal last winter.

The four-member ethics subcommittee — split equally between the two parties — was unable to agree in March whether to drop the complaint or to investigate further. Senate President Michelle Fischbach, who chairs the subcommittee, postponed a follow-up meeting for nearly a month, despite repeated requests from the complainant, DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas.

The committee again on Tuesday failed to reach agreement and instead debated procedural rules for about two hours before the members headed out for the Senate’s scheduled floor session.

“Is it fair for me to say that we’re basically stuck in the mud here?” GOP Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen asked the committee after a number of deadlocked votes. “We’re basically stuck.”

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“Can we at least agree with that?” he asked with a laugh.

Despite the humorous moment, members of the committee fought hard along partisan lines over what to do with Michel, who for most of the hearing sat quietly. The complaint’s unresolved status is unusual for the ethics committee, which typically comes to a final decision.

Democrats want to continue investigating Michel’s involvement in what they view as an alleged cover-up of details surrounding Koch’s affair with high-profile former staffer Michael Brodkorb. Pappas’ complaint charges Michel with lying to reporters — and, therefore, the public — about the timeframe in which he learned about the relationship.

Michel has testified that he fudged the dates to protect staff that brought the affair between Koch — who stepped down as majority leader and has announced that she won’t run again — and Brodkorb, who is now planning to sue the Senate. Michel also decided not to seek re-election.

Republicans say that Brodkorb’s potential litigation makes it tricky to investigate or discuss the specifics of Pappas’ complaint, and Fischbach severely limited the Democrats’ ability to question Michel at the hearing in March in order to spare the Senate from increased liability.

But the same argument — and political divide — surfaced again on Tuesday: The Democrats want the specifics of what happened, and the Republicans are reluctant to discuss specifics.

“This is unprecedented for the Minnesota state Senate,” Fischbach said. “We have not had this kind of ethics hearing while there’s potential litigation, so it’s unprecedented for us.”

That rationale didn’t fly with Democratic Sens. John Harrington and Kathy Sheran, who said it’s important for the reputation of the Senate to uncover the truth, even if it makes the body more vulnerable to litigation.

The ethics committee “process itself should occur regardless of its consequences outside of this committee,” Sheran said.

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Sheran’s comment goes against what Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said when he and Pappas announced the complaint in March.

“We do not want this complaint to be any kind of a vehicle that puts the Senate in more liability than it’s already in,” he said.

Pappas has called on Michel to read a letter of apology on the Senate floor — and urged the committee to continue investigating.

Michel has declined to issue such an apology.

“I believe this is about partisan politics and about retaliation, and this isn’t about ethics, and this isn’t about the honor of the Senate,” Michel said after the hearing recessed. “I think what you saw … this morning at least, was an ethics committee that’s twisted into a pretzel because there’s no merit to these charges.”

Members of the committee could barely agree whether to meet again after they stalemated on every other possible option. They even considered meeting privately to avoid providing a record for the courts.

In the end, it appears likely that the complaint could remained unresolved until Michel exits the Senate in January.

“We have deadlocked on every one of the questions in front of us,” Fischbach said.