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A move to force former Deputy Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel to publicly apologize for his handling of a sex scandal that rocked the Capitol last year has left the Senate Ethics Committee deadlocked along party lines.
The four-member committee split 2-2 on Friday, unable to reach a decision on whether Michel violated ethics rules when he did not inform the Senate that Majority Leader Amy Koch was having an affair with staffer Michael Brodkorb.
The deadlock, due in part to the panel's inability to discuss issues related to a possible wrongful-termination suit by Brodkorb, keeps the issue alive indefinitely. Since the scandal in December, Koch resigned from the leadership, Brodkorb was fired and Michel lost his deputy spot. He has since said he will not run for re-election.
Michel insists he did nothing wrong in the months after he found out about the affair last fall. He said he was proud of how he and staff handled knowledge that Koch -- who, he said, was the "top of the pyramid" -- was having an affair with her executive assistant.
"These folks and myself have nothing to apologize for," said Michel, R-Edina. He said he did his best once it was clear that "the majority leader was not willing to resolve the conflict, even after being confronted by our chief of staff. The employee in question was not willing to step down."
DFLers say Michel should apologize publicly for telling the news media, and therefore the public, in December that he had known about the affair for only a few weeks. He later admitted that he had, in fact, known about it since September.
"The ethical behavior would have been to say, 'I would prefer not to answer that question,'" said DFL Sen. Kathy Sheran, of Mankato. Sheran, a member of the committee, said Michel chose instead to deceive.
Republican senators said the DFL ethics complaint is motivated more by partisanship than by ethical concerns.
"This is purely political," said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria. A member of the committee, Ingebrigtsen said he would not "second-guess" anything Michel did to deal with the knowledge that Koch had an affair with Brodkorb. "I keep going back to what a tough job that had to be," he said.
Giving the 2 1/2-hour hearing an even weightier feel, both Michel and Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, who brought the complaint, were sworn to tell the truth during the proceedings. Nearly all of the Senate's Republicans sat quietly behind Michel, in visible support of their colleague. Koch was not present.
Michel also brought his own attorney to sit with him as he testified before the committee.
"People did bring dishonor and disrepute upon the Senate -- and it's the people who created this mess," his attorney, Bob Maher, said to the committee. "And it's the cynical political opportunists who are trying to capitalize on this mess." DFLers said they have no plans to file an ethics complaint against Koch, who will leave the Senate at the end of this year.
But there may be more fallout from the scandal, which was clearly present in the committee room: the specter of a lawsuit.
Brodkorb, who was fired the day after Koch resigned last year, plans to sue the Senate for gender bias. He claims he was treated differently from other employees who have had intimate relationships with their legislative bosses. His attorneys have said that to prove his case, he will need to interview all current and former lawmakers and staffers who may have had dalliances.
While no one in the hearing room mentioned Brodkorb by name, his presence was felt. The private attorney the Senate hired to deal with his case, Dayle Nolan, watched the entire hearing. Occasionally, Senate counsel Tom Bottern left the committee table to consult with her.
Ethics Committee chair Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, repeatedly reminded members to steer away from any questions or statements that could have a bearing on his potential litigation. "We are trying to be particularly careful," said Fischbach, an attorney by training.
The committee members had agreed to restart deliberations after a lengthy floor debate on voter ID concluded, but the Republican members didn't show up for those discussions. After waiting an hour, the two Democratic members -- Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, and Sheran -- said it was "inappropriate" and "problematic" for the Republicans to skip out on their agreed-upon hearing time.
Shortly after 10 p.m., committee chair Fischbach released a statement to the media -- not to the DFL members -- saying she was ending the meeting for the night. Sheran said she is not confident that Republicans will ever reconvene the meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said they were concerned about how the afternoon hearing and any further discussions might affect potential litigation by Brodkorb.
Pappas said she left the afternoon hearing frustrated. She wanted answers, she said, and because of the lawsuit, "we are not able to do that, evidently."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb