Rep. Tony Cornish, facing an investigation into sexual harassment allegations by women he worked with at the State Capitol, was accused years ago of aggressive behavior toward his ex-wife.
In 1990, a Koochiching County judge granted Cornish’s ex-wife, Mary, a domestic abuse protection order against him. They had divorced two years earlier. A copy of the one-year protection order, dated July 23, 1990, offers scant details of the circumstances, saying only that “the evidence justifies issuance of the order.” It also instructed Cornish to participate in divorce counseling.
Cornish, an eight-term Republican from Vernon Center who until recently chaired the House Public Safety Committee, was accused recently by a lobbyist of relentlessly badgering her for sex over a period of years, once pushing her up against a wall in his office. Cornish denies it.
Another lawmaker, DFL Rep. Erin Maye Quade, released texts from Cornish in which he commented on her appearance and said he’d been caught staring at her. Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers said he once warned Cornish about harassment of women based on secondhand reports, and current House Speaker Kurt Daudt recently suspended Cornish’s committee chairmanship while initiating an outside investigation into Cornish’s behavior.
In 2002, a dozen years after the protection order was issued, he was elected to represent a Mankato-area House district that he has held ever since.
Cornish, 66, has denied wrongdoing and has so far resisted calls to resign from DFLers and some Republicans.
At the time of their divorce, Tony and Mary Cornish, who have three adult children, lived in the small Koochiching County town of Northome. Two years after their divorce, according to sheriff’s records, deputies in 1990 responded to two incidents involving the Cornishes shortly before the protection order was granted. One, a trespass call on May 9, 1990, lists Mary as the victim/complainant and Tony Cornish as a suspect; the second, a burglary call, also lists Mary as victim/complainant and Tony as suspect.
There is no evidence Cornish was arrested or charged in relation to the calls. Sheriff’s Office staff searched the records but couldn’t find copies of the incident reports that would describe the two calls.
Cornish told the Star Tribune that the calls concerned foster children and parents, and not his relationship with his ex-wife. He did not address the domestic abuse protection order.
“My former wife and I travel together, go to grandparents day together and go to Church together,” Cornish said via e-mail. “We have a wonderful close relationship.”
Reached by telephone about the matter a few weeks ago, Mary Cornish said she had no knowledge of the matter and hung up. She declined again on Monday to discuss it.
George Gray, a retired Koochiching County sheriff’s deputy in Northome, said he recalled reading the incident report on the burglary call involving Tony Cornish. Although it has been many years since he read the report, he recalled it being an unauthorized entry that did not involve any foster children.
“He climbed in through the window,” Gray said. “She was in the shower.” The report stood out in his mind, he said, “because it was such an egregious offense.”
Gray added: “In my opinion if someone else had done that they would have been arrested. If it had been my call he would have been arrested.”
It’s unlikely the domestic violence matter — now nearly three decades old — would fall within the scope of the current House investigation of Cornish.
The state House of Representatives hired St. Paul-based NeuVest at the rate of $275-an-hour to investigate the sexual harassment allegations against Cornish.
He has denied ever pushing a woman up against a wall in his office, and defended other behavior at the Capitol as within the bounds of a man seeking dates with women.
House Republican leaders would not say whether the investigation could touch on events outside work.
Zellers said he heard no more complaints about Cornish following their confrontation. Daudt said last week that Zellers never warned him about Cornish’s behavior. Rep. Joe Hoppe, who chaired the GOP caucus’s personnel committee under Zellers, declined to comment on any action the committee took to rein in Cornish, citing the advice of the House employment lawyer.
Since the initial allegations against Cornish surfaced, two more lobbyists have told the Star Tribune about uncomfortable exchanges with the lawmaker. One said his persistent unwelcome flirtatious behavior led her to make sure she was never alone with him. Another said they made sure that a younger intern was never left alone with him “because he would make advances to her.” The lobbyists asked not to be identified because they feared retaliation.
Cornish has been well-known at the Capitol for his gregarious personality, loud ties and cowboy boots. A bluntly spoken outdoorsman, he has been one of the Capitol’s most vocal gun rights supporters, open about the fact that he carries a handgun at work.
Cornish has said he didn’t realize the text had offended Maye Quade. And he denied any inappropriate behavior with a lobbyist in his office, but acknowledged sending text messages that he “was just interested in good times good wine good food and good sex.”
“I’m an adult, I’m not a saint,” Cornish told the Star Tribune.
Tom Chapin, a retired DNR conservation officer who worked with Cornish and supervised him for five years when Cornish was a game warden, said he was aware that Cornish “had an active social life” but that he was “always a professional person.”“
“I just said unless it affects the job and our relationship I’m not going to worry about it,” Chapin said.
Liz Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, said Cornish’s domestic abuse issue matters because victim advocates consider sexual harassment and domestic violence as similar behaviors “on a continuum.”
“This is the use of control, using intimidation,” she said.
Richards noted that as a member of the House Public Safety Committee, Cornish has dealt directly with domestic violence policy matters. A few years ago he opposed efforts to create a model policy for how police should handle domestic violence calls when the suspects themselves are law enforcement officers.
But Cornish also sometimes championed her organization’s causes, Richards said.
In 2016, for instance, he supported a bill that enabled victims to extend the terms of a domestic abuse protection order without having to go through a hearing.
Star Tribune staff writer J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.