State Rep. Tony Cornish plans to resign from the Minnesota House by the end of the month following allegations of sexual harassment by a number of women he worked with at the Capitol, he said in a statement Tuesday.
“As a proud former peace officer and longtime champion for public safety, I am forced to face the reality that I have made some at the Capitol feel uncomfortable, and disrespected,” Cornish said in the statement. “To those individuals and specifically the unnamed lobbyist, I sincerely apologize for my unwelcome behavior.”
Cornish, an eight-term representative from southern Minnesota’s Vernon Center, also agreed to pay the legal bills of Sarah Walker, a lobbyist he had repeatedly propositioned for sex.
In a separate statement, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin said they asked for Cornish’s resignation.
“Over the last week, it has become increasingly clear his resignation is the most appropriate course of action for him, his constituents, and our institution.”
A high-profile supporter of gun rights who cultivated a law-and-order image, Cornish until recently had been chairman of the House Public Safety Committee.
Lobbyists and other lawmakers told the Star Tribune and other media outlets in recent weeks that Cornish repeatedly propositioned them for sex, and that he was known by many women who worked at the Capitol as someone to avoid.
Cornish, 66, vigorously denied any wrongdoing but acknowledged that he had mixed his career at the Legislature with romantic pursuits. Cornish is divorced; the Star Tribune reported that, in 1990, his ex-wife obtained a domestic abuse protection order against him. Information on what led to that order was not publicly available.
Cornish joins other politicians, entertainment and media figures who have recently been swept up in credible allegations of sexual harassment. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken has recently publicly apologized to two women who reported inappropriate behavior on his part, one from before he was a senator and the other since he became one.
In Cornish’s case, Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, produced text messages in which Cornish favorably commented on her appearance on the House floor. Cornish said the texts were taken out of context and not meant to offend.
Walker, the lobbyist who accused Cornish of badgering her for sex over a period of years, had remained anonymous until shortly after Cornish announced his resignation. She then issued her own statement.
“My deepest hope is that the current conversations will lead to long-term institutional changes that will allow hardworking, dedicated, and intelligent women at the State Capitol the freedom to do their work without being subjected to harassment,” Walker said.
Walker relayed one incident around 2010 when she went to Cornish’s office to discuss a bill. When she moved to leave, she said, he asked her not to go, and stood up. Then he asked her to look down.
“He said ‘Look down,’ ” she said. “ ‘I have a raging boner. You can’t leave.’ ”
Dumbstruck, she sat back down. She said he repeated the statement. She deflected, she said, by telling him she was running late for a meeting, and exited.
In a later incident, she said, Cornish pushed her against his office wall and tried to kiss her. She said she pushed him away and left.
Walker’s attorney, Scott Flaherty, said Tuesday that he and Jon Hopeman, representing Cornish, started talking about a settlement last Friday. The terms of the agreement were simply to apologize, resign and pay for Walker’s attorney fees, Flaherty said.
Flaherty described Cornish’s apology as “heartfelt.”
“What he did was not OK, but it was a good apology and he was sincere and he should be applauded for that sincerity,” Flaherty said. He added that “I think it reflects the changed political environment around the sexual misconduct claims.”
Gov. Mark Dayton can call a special election to fill out the remainder of Cornish’s term. The district has been strongly Republican territory in recent decades.