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Sexual harassment allegations erupt at Minnesota Capitol

Sen. Dan Schoen, D-Cottage Grove. Courtesy photo / Dan Schoen1 / 2
State Rep. Tony Cornish2 / 2

ST. PAUL — The national phenomenon of women alleging sexual harassment by men in power erupted in the Minnesota Capitol, following allegations that broke overnight against one lawmaker and expanded Thursday to include a second.

Two women publicly accused Sen. Dan Schoen, a St. Paul Park Democrat and Cottage Grove police officer, of sexual harassment, igniting a bipartisan chorus of calls for Schoen’s resignation -- which he did not heed — and touching off speculation about who might come forward next with allegations against whom. Schoen denies any inappropriate conduct.

One of the accusers, Rep. Erin Maye Quade, a fellow DFLer from Apple Valley, expanded the scope of the spotlight Thursday, saying she had been sexually harassed by “multiple members” of the House majority Republican Party during the spring legislative session.

Then Rep. Tony Cornish, a powerful eight-term Republican from Vernon Center, saw his chairmanship of the House Public Safety Committee suspended late Thursday after a allegations surfaced against him.

In an interview with KMSP-TV, Maye Quade said Cornish sent her inappropriate text messages, while the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio published more serious allegations against Cornish by a longtime lobbyist the news outlets did not name.

Cornish said the texts were intended as a joke, and he denied much of lobbyist’s allegations, but House Speaker Kurt Daudt, a Republican, on Thursday evening called the allegations “extremely troubling” and suspended Cornish’s chairmanship and opened a human resources complaint.

Finger-pointing, some with a partisan flavor, broke out privately and publicly, with some leading Democrats accusing Republican leaders of not being candid about who-knew-what-when, and Republicans accusing Democrats of not telling them the whats and the whos so they could act.

As in other statehouses around the country, the Legislature in St. Paul bears the heritage of a men’s club, and rumors that have long-circulated about the behaviors of some were the topic of many in quiet conversations of the largely empty halls Thursday while the Legislature is in recess.

Schoen lawyers up

Although he never spoke publicly, Schoen remained defiant Thursday in the face of a cascade of calls for his resignation from offices as high as Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, as well as top officials in both the Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor parties.

He let stand his statement from Wednesday evening, when online news publication MinnPost first broke the allegations, that the accusations were “either completely false or have been taken far out of context.”

Frustrated Senate leaders learned Thursday evening that Schoen had retained an attorney to fight any actions his colleagues might take against him.

And they might. Senate leaders suggested they’re considering opening an ethics investigation — a process that could ultimately result in Schoen’s expulsion from the chamber.

Cornish accused

Maye Quade’s text exchange with Cornish happened while the two were on the floor of the House. “I just got an anonymous text saying I got busted for staring at you on the house floor. ... Haha,” read a text from Cornish that Maye Quade said offended her. It was followed by: “I told him it was your fault, of course. Look too damned good. Ha.”

Cornish provided an entire string of texts between he and Maye Quade that shows what otherwise appear to be friendly banter of two politicians on opposite sides of the aisle. He said her allegation that he was being inappropriate surprised him. ”It came to my attention today that I offended Rep. Maye Quade in one of the text messages,” he said in a statement. “This was a poor attempt at humor with a colleague and I sincerely apologize.”

The anonymous lobbyist who spoke with the Star Tribune told of years of unwanted sexual advances by Cornish, who is not married. They ranged from suggestive text messages to unwanted physical contact and lewd behavior, she said. She said she did not report the alleged behavior to House leaders because of fears she would be unable to do her job.

In an interview Thursday evening, Cornish vehemently denied having any inappropriate contact or behaving lewdly. “I own the texts,” he said. “It was the possibility of a relationship,” he said, adding that no relationship ever resulted.

Maye Quade, a freshman lawmaker who is married to another woman, said she has also overheard sexually charged comments from male lawmakers related to her appearance, and the fact that she’s openly gay.

Other allegations?

Several lawmakers suggested publicly that other shoes could drop at the Capitol — as they have at other statehouses around the nation following sexual harassment allegations against shamed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, a Democrat from Roseville, said, “Sen. Schoen is not the only person in the Minnesota Legislature to act inappropriately towards women. My hope is that as the truth comes to light, others will feel empowered to step forward so we can meaningfully work towards true change at our State Capitol.”

Maye Quade said other women have stories to tell. “Numerous people have contacted me with their own stories and I want anyone else to know they are not alone.”

What’s next?

If Schoen continues to hold out, “leadership” will get to determine his fate, according to the Senate sexual harassment policy. Disciplinary actions could range from requiring an apology to expulsion from the Senate.

The same could apply to Cornish.

“Resolution of (sexual harassment) complaints can include, but not necessarily be limited to, an apology, direction to stop the offensive behavior, counseling or training, oral warning, written warning, transfer to another department, suspension with or without pay, or termination,” the policy states. “Disciplinary action involving members of the Senate or the House will be handled by Leadership  ... ”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka suggested discipline for Schoen could be in the offing via the Ethics Committee, a panel of two Republicans and two Democrats: “We have an ethics process in place that might need to be utilized if Sen. Schoen doesn’t resign,” Gazelka said.

The Ethics Committee could, by a majority, recommend expulsion to the full Senate. The state Constitution allows the Senate to expel a member with a two-thirds majority, but first the complaints against the lawmaker must go through a process. And the Legislature isn’t in session until February.

The Senate policies define sexual harassment as unwelcome behavior, which can be verbal, non-verbal, or physical. Those who have been subject to offensive sexual behavior can submit a complaint in confidentiality, which will ultimately be resolved by “Leadership,” according to the policies.

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