Senate GOP wants questions answered

Tuesday's meeting to pick a new leader to replace Amy Koch could be "emotional," one senator says.

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From left, Republican Sens. Dave Senjem of Rochester, Geoff Michel of Edina and David Hann of Eden Prairie spoke to the media Dec. 16, 2011. This week, some rank-and-file senators say they're upset that Senate leaders discussed the situation with reporters before they shared information with other senators.

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As they prepare to select a new leader, Minnesota Senate Republicans are angry, frustrated, and want answers from their leadership about how Amy Koch was ousted from the top position.

"It wasn't handled very well," said Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, who predicted that Tuesday's meeting to select Koch's successor will be long and "emotional." The news that Koch had been accused of having an affair with a Senate staff member "should have been confronted earlier -- I don't understand that," Nelson said.

The dramatic disclosure about Koch this month, coupled with the news that Senate Republican leaders knew of the allegation three months ago, threatens to split apart a caucus that only a year ago reached a pinnacle. Republicans not only gained control of the Senate last year for the first time in more than a generation, but Koch became the first woman to serve as Senate majority leader.

As Senate Republicans prepare to sort through what happened, several have said privately they are not happy that their leaders held a news conference last week claiming the allegations were only brought to their attention a few weeks ago when they knew that was not true. Some rank-and-file senators are also upset that a small group of Senate leaders discussed the allegations with reporters before they shared it with other Senate Republicans.

"As senators, we want the absolute truth and we need to know the facts, and the true timeline that took place," said Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing.

Complicating Tuesday's meeting is the fact that some Senate leaders who are being criticized for their handling of the controversy may be in line to replace Koch. Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, who was part of a small group of Senate Republican leaders who confronted Koch last week, is considered to be a candidate. As the controversy continued this week, Hann did not return repeated messages seeking comment.

That has led some Republican senators to say privately that the best remedy may be to remove the entire Senate leadership team and start fresh with a new majority leader and deputies. Some senators have also said they plan to probe the actions of the senators who confronted Koch.

That has put the focus on Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, Koch's deputy.

Senators became furious when Cullen Sheehan, Koch's former chief of staff, said this week that he reported the incident to Michel back in September. Michel now says he immediately notified human resources professionals and other Senate leaders to figure out what to do.

Michel said he had to fudge the timeline to protect Sheehan and another whistleblower. He has since said it might have been wise to not offer a timeline at the news conference.

One Senate Republican source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that "it's pretty obvious we weren't prepared to handle this." He added that there were "probably missteps along the way.

"There's [now] a consternation about credibility within the leadership-assistant leadership level," he said.

Another Republican senator, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said bluntly: "They had three months to prepare for this."

As the story continues to unfold, so does controversy.

Secretary of the Senate Cal Ludeman said early this week he only learned about the issue a few weeks ago.

But Michel said that, after Sheehan approached him in September, he immediately notified Ludeman, Senate leaders and human resources professionals to devise the best way to proceed.

Ludeman again said on Friday that he was not aware of the issue until recently, but added that other members of his staff could have been informed.

Whatever the explanation, Tuesday's meeting could turn into a bitter rehash of the way Senate leaders handled Koch's final months.

"If this was in September, why are we finding out about it, you know, at the end of December?" asked Nelson, who was part of a class of first-termers who propelled the GOP into the Senate majority. "I think honesty's always the best policy."

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, said he too wants answers, especially on how much Senate Republican leaders were guided by legal advice. "What I don't know yet is the chronology, or what the legal advice was," he said.

Gazelka said he particularly wants to know what the "direct response" was after Sheehan went to Michel with the allegations. "I do have a call in about that," he said. "I really need to see what were the steps.

"It's a very unfortunate situation," said Gazelka, adding that Republican senators are "working very hard to move forward."

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673 Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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