Ethics panel tells senator to apologize over tweet
ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Senate ethics committee Monday night told state Sen. Gretchen Hoffman to apologize for a misleading tweet about a fellow senator.
Hoffman, R-Vergas, must send an apology letter to Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, and tweet a link to the committee's report finding her at fault. She also must remove her original tweet from her Twitter account.
If the first-year senator complies, the committee will drop her case.
All four committee members said the senator was wrong, but needed six hours to consider response to the tweet, the first social media-related Senate ethics charge.
"Sen. Goodwin just called people with mental illness idiots and imbeciles while debating HHS bill," Hoffman tweeted May 18.
The tweet came during debate on funding health and humans services programs. Goodwin three times referred to "idiots, imbeciles and the insane" as terms that at one time were used for the mentally bill, indicating that came in a time when care was inadequate.
Twitter is a service that allows users to send messages of up to 140 characters to followers. As of Monday night, Hoffman had 695 followers.
In the last couple of years, Twitter has exploded as a political commentary platform.
Hundreds of tweets (Twitter messages) are produced about state government every day by Minnesota politicians, political reporters, government staffers, lobbyists and others.
Many carry strongly partisan political messages.
Goodwin said she is satisfied that Hoffman was required to apologize for her tweet and said she hopes the ethics sanction will prevent future infractions.
Hoffman did not testify during her Capitol hearing, although she took an oath so she could testify if needed. No one asked her questions.
She left well before the meeting ended and her attorney, Fritz Knaak, left shortly was not available after the meeting for comment about whether Hoffman would comply with the committee order.
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, brought the ethics charges, saying it was obvious Goodwin was not calling the mentally ill idiots and imbeciles, just talking about history.
"It is very clear that she mischaracterized what Sen. Goodwin said," Rest said after the committee watched a video replay of the May 18 Senate debate.
Knaak said Hoffman should have apologized to Goodwin on May 18 or during the debate she should have objected to her colleague's remarks. He attributed Hoffman's inaction then on being a first-year lawmaker.
But, Knaak said, Hoffman's mistake does not rise to the level of an ethics charge.
Hoffman is a nurse who has worked with the mentally ill.
The lengthy committee debate included whether Hoffman owes an apology to the full Senate. Committee members decided it was more important to apologize to Goodwin and to get the word out about the ethics decision to her Twitter followers.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, led debate against forcing Hoffman to apologize multiple times, calling it "piling on."
Ingebrigtsen, like others on the committee, said he does not understand Twitter and does not have an account.
"I struggle with this Twitter tweet thing," he said. "When I get up in the morning, I roll the stone away from the door."
At times, the committee consulted a young staff member for Twitter information.
While Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, said Hoffman should apologize via Twitter, since there is where her ethics charge originated, Committee Chairwoman Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, argued against an apology there. In the end, they agreed to asking Hoffman to send a Tweet linking to the committee report about the ethics violation.
Fischbach hesitated to make Hoffman post her apology letter online, saying that has not been done before.
Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, fought for the written apology to Goodwin.
Harrington successfully argued to order Hoffman to remove her original Tweet. "We need to make sure the cyber record is correct."
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.