Senate Majority Leader Johnson to deliver apologies

ST. PAUL -- Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson must deliver two apologies to settle a complaint against him, the Minnesota Senate Ethics Committee decided.

ST. PAUL -- Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson must deliver two apologies to settle a complaint against him, the Minnesota Senate Ethics Committee decided.

The committee Friday handed Johnson one of the lightest penalties in its arsenal when it unanimously ruled he must apologize for saying he talked to Supreme Court justices about a law banning gay marriage.

"With an apology Monday, we move on with the Senate's work," the Willmar DFLer said.

The committee ruled there was "probable cause" to continue an investigation. However, questions about whether justices can be ordered to testify in a Senate hearing helped convince committee members to compromise on ordering two apologies.

The panel did not decide whether Johnson was telling the truth last Jan. 19 when he said he had received assurances from justices that they would not overturn the gay marriage prohibition law.


The committee's decision is meant to put an end to the 10-day-old controversy over whether Johnson discussed that law with justices, who by judicial rule are not allowed to talk about issues that may come before them. An ethics complaint filed Wednesday by six Republican senators charged that the comments were improper under rules that require members to be truthful and uphold the dignity of the Senate.

On March 15, a group seeking a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages released a tape recording in which Johnson can be heard saying he talked to at least three justices about the gay-marriage law. It apparently was an attempt to convince his audience of ministers that a stronger constitutional amendment on the same subject was not needed.

Johnson eventually changed his story, saying March 17 that at some point he had one conversation with single justice, but received no commitment to uphold the gay marriage ban. He said his Jan. 19 comments were an embellishment.

Chief Justice Russell Anderson said he talked to all members of the high court and recently retired Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz and received assurances none talked to Johnson on the matter.

Committee members said part of the reason Johnson got off with a light punishment was they did not know if they could subpoena justices to testify in a Senate hearing.

"We sought to avoid that ... potential separation of power, branch of government conflicts," Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield, said.

Ethics charges against senators are rare - there have been just two in the past decade - and Capitol observers say they cannot remember any being filed against a leader.

Johnson looked somber during a half-hour open committee meeting, which was followed by two hours of closed-door discussions. When the committee announced its decision, the senator said little before his lawyer, Ellen Sampson, cut off questions and the pair hurried out of the committee room.


Committee members said they, Johnson and Republicans who brought the charges agreed on Johnson's punishment during their private meeting.

Johnson must apologize to his colleagues and constituents in his west-central Minnesota district when the Senate meets at 11 a.m. Monday. He also must deliver a written apology to members of the New London-Spicer group of ministers that heard him make the controversial comments last Jan. 19.

Bill Miller, president of the NLS Ministerial and lay pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in New London, said he will be happy to have his group out of the news.

"I'm happy to have this put behind us because there are no winners," Miller said.

The two GOP senators who led the complaint said the apologies will end the ordeal, but things never can return to the way they were before Johnson's comments were made public.

"You really can't go back," Sen. Mike McGinn, R-Eagan, said.

But McGinn said good news came out of the controversy: "We let the public know we are going to be guardians of our own integrity."

Johnson, 58, is one of Minnesota's longest-serving lawmakers. He entered the House as a Republican in 1979. He was leader of Senate Republicans from 1993 to 1997, but lost the job in a dispute with other caucus members.


The senator jumped to the DFL Party a couple of years after losing his GOP leadership job and in 2004 Democrats made him their leader.

Besides a senator, Johnson is a Lutheran minister and National Guard chaplain.

Those who want a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages blame Johnson for blocking a vote in the full Senate. The House already has approved the amendment.

Forum Communications Co. reporters Linda Vanderwerf of the West Central Tribune in Willmar and Scott Wente of the Red Wing Republican Eagle contributed to this story.

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