Allegations of domestic abuse or physical violence must always be taken seriously. Recent allegations by Karen Monahan and her son against U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison — who is seeking the office of Minnesota attorney general in this fall’s election and who won the Aug. 14 DFL primary — deserve a serious investigation by local law enforcement as well as by the DFL Party and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Because these allegations came within days of the primary election, many people viewed them only through a political prism. But I think these claims of abuse are a cause for concern on multiple levels.
Monahan’s son, Austin, made public specific factual claims of yearslong domestic abuse suffered by his mother and described at least one incident of physical violence he observed from a video recording on her computer. The next day, Karen Monahan corroborated everything her son reported. A CNN reporter also confirmed with three of Karen Monahan’s friends that she described the physical violence incident shortly after it allegedly occurred. In a recent television interview, Karen Monahan recounted that at her meeting with Ellison on the night before he filed his candidacy for attorney general, he expressed his concern that she might reveal events during their relationship that might affect his political career. In response to the abuse claims, Ellison made a limited denial that the alleged physical violence incident ever took place and did not address the domestic-abuse allegations more specifically.
My experience prosecuting domestic-abuse cases includes serving on the Attorney General’s Special Task Force on Sexual Assault and Violence Against Women. In my view, considering a 2006 claim by another woman alleging a romantic relationship with Ellison and describing similar acts of abuse, the Monahan abuse claims constitutes sufficient credible evidence requiring an immediate criminal investigation — one focusing on the victim and her rights to safety, and a professional evaluation of all the evidence. Ellison has previously stated support for this approach. Commenting in late 2017 on the allegations against U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who would go on to resign, Ellison said, “I’m deeply disturbed by what I read … . It took extraordinary bravery for Leeann Tweeden to come forward … but we as a progressive community must take her words seriously, and fully commit ourselves to creating a world free from sexual harassment and assault.”
However, in an election environment, most of the attention is on the responses by state and national Democratic organizations and candidates. The DFL, now facing a dilemma after Ellison was the top vote recipient in the primary election for attorney general, and the DNC, where Ellison is deputy chair, each indicated they are “reviewing” the matter without saying by what standard. But on Saturday, the DFL Party officially endorsed Ellison, apparently without the review it promised. However, several statewide DFL candidates seem reluctant to endorse or make political appearances with Ellison, and the National Organization for Women and Ultraviolet both have asked Ellison to withdraw his attorney general candidacy (and resign from Congress). Many voters are asking if Ellison will let his personal ambition trump doing the right thing.
This controversy will surely remain front and center in the general election in November. Many questions remain to be answered apart from the criminal investigation. Will the Democrats’ default position in the #MeToo movement be an authentic “I believe her” or a return to the Trump-like cop-out that we can let this go because it’s just a she said/he said thing (essentially saying she’s lying)? Will Democrats, quietly hoping the abuse video does not exist or other possible victims never step forward, risk wearing heavily the crown of hypocrisy by applying a double standard because the alleged abuser is one of “our” guys? Will this affect DFL efforts to become the majority in the state House? Will the integrity of the attorney general’s office be undermined if led by an accused domestic abuser?
These questions are now in play. However, they should be secondary to investigating what happened to Karen Monahan. How this case is handled also will send a clear message to past and future victims if Monahan is treated differently because her alleged abuser enjoys a certain kind of political power and national prestige.
Tom Foley was a candidate in the Aug. 14 DFL primary election for attorney general, placing third among five candidates. He is a former Ramsey County Attorney.