Allegations of sexual harassment and offensive behavior by male lawmakers swirled at Minnesota’s Capitol on Thursday, with DFL Sen. Dan Schoen facing demands from his own party’s leaders that he resign while two women leveled new complaints against Republican state Rep. Tony Cornish.
Late Thursday, House Speaker Kurt Daudt issued a statement saying he has suspended Cornish’s House Public Safety Committee chairmanship and asked the House’s nonpartisan human resources staff to look into the allegations.
A DFL state representative who said both Schoen and Cornish harassed her alleged Thursday that House leadership has known about a toxic work environment for months — one she said protects offending lawmakers rather than their victims.
“I am not alone in experiencing harassment at the Capitol,” said Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley. She said Schoen texted her repeatedly asking her to meet soon after she first became a candidate for a House seat and that Cornish texted her during a House floor debate commenting on her appearance.
Maye Quade, first elected in 2016, provided the Star Tribune with a text message from Cornish in May 2017 in which he wrote that he “got busted for staring at you on the House floor … Haha. I told him it was your fault, of course. Look too damned good. Ha. I must be more gentlemanly when I run for governor.”
Another woman, a veteran Capitol lobbyist who asked not to be named, told the Star Tribune that Cornish relentlessly pursued her over a period of at least several years, frequently texting her and at least once cornering her in his office.
Reached late Thursday at his home in Vernon Center, Cornish vigorously denied wrongdoing. He said he had been made aware of his chairmanship suspension in a brief, cordial conversation with Daudt.
Cornish said his texts to Maye Quade were taken out of context and were part of a string of friendly, joking exchanges.
“The thing with Erin Quade was a complete blindside to me,” he said. “I had no idea offense was taken.” He said he hadn’t detected any problems in his interactions with her.
"We do have a cordial and collegial relationship," Maye Quade said, "which doesn’t excuse sexual harassment."
Cornish denied that two incidents in his office described by the lobbyist ever happened. “Nothing happened,” he said. “Nothing in any shape or form.”
Cornish did, however, acknowledge that he sent the lobbyist a string of text messages in which she denied his repeated requests to have sex with her. “I’m an adult, I’m not a saint,” he said.
In one of the texts, Cornish asked, “Would it scare you if I said that I was just interested in good times good wine good food and good sex?”
In the phone interview, Cornish said, “I’ve been known at the Capitol in the past as big mouth,” he said. “But I’m straightforward. … How do you say as a politician that I didn’t do this and have anyone believe you? It’s really a tough one.”
Several other women also leveled accusations against Schoen, who is an officer with the Cottage Grove Police Department. Public officials, including Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate DFL Minority Leader Tom Bakk, have called for him to resign. In a statement Wednesday night, Schoen denied the allegations.
Schoen did not answer repeated knocks on the door of his South St. Paul home Thursday evening.
His attorney, Paul Rogosheske, said Schoen denies any wrongdoing, and called Dayton’s statement seeking his resignation “extremely inappropriate,” adding, “[To] prejudge him without any facts or knowledge is wrong.”
“This is not the way American justice goes forward,” Rogosheske said. “My client is denying all these facts and we are not resigning. … Any kind of abuse to a woman is terrible … but let’s let the criminal justice system work itself out, for crying out loud.”
Rogosheske said Schoen has done a “great job in the community.”
The unfolding situation comes amid a widening harassment scandal across the country and could upend careers and change the culture at the Minnesota Capitol.
In her interview with the Star Tribune, Maye Quade said she was also the subject of unwanted sexual comments by “multiple members” of the House Republican majority.
In the case of Cornish, Maye Quade said she complained about the exchange to DFL leadership, which took the complaint to the speaker of the House, according to House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman.
Daudt said in a statement earlier Thursday that Hortman came to him only with “general concerns about the work environment in the Minnesota House. However, I was not made aware of specific complaints and names of those responsible despite repeated requests for information.”
Daudt added that he would continue to work “to ensure the Minnesota House is a safe and respectful work environment for members and employees.”
Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, released a letter she sent Daudt in May that refers to at least one specific complaint about sexual harassment, but does not name anyone involved.
“I asked you to take immediate action to instruct your members on what is and what is not sexual harassment and to take steps to stop sexual harassment that is occurring,” reads the memo — marked “confidential.” The Hortman memo continues: “I am happy to take directly parallel actions in my caucus to protect the identity of the complainant.” Hortman’s profession is employment law.
Daudt has organized a mandatory harassment and discrimination training for legislators at the start of the 2018 session.
The lobbyist who alleges sexual harassment and badgering by Cornish estimated that the lawmaker propositioned her for sex at least 40 times in the past decade — unwanted advances that she said she always rejected. He would frequently text her during committee meetings with personal messages, she said, such as “ ‘You look so good … can you come to my office?’ ”
The lobbyist said she never reported Cornish’s behavior to anyone at the Capitol, although she did mention it to her employer, a lobbying firm, at the time. Her understanding was any ensuing ethics complaint would go to a bipartisan panel — two DFLers and two Republicans — and would likely not result in anything helpful. And it would kill her career, she said.
“He holds the most important seat for anyone who does criminal justice work,” she explained. “For me to get anything done, I have to work with this guy.”
The lobbyist 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 pushed him away and left.
The encounters left her feeling degraded, she said, and she contemplated switching careers. “I think I’m very good at what I do,” the lobbyist said. “The Legislature is definitely behind other places like business environments in terms of sexual harassment policies.”
Schoen, a first-term senator who previously served two terms in the House, is in the most immediate political jeopardy. The Senate’s leader suggested he could face a possible Senate ethics inquiry into multiple allegations of sexual harassment.
“We have an ethics process in place that might need to be utilized if Sen. Schoen doesn’t resign,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said Thursday. “This is clearly behavior that brings the Senate into disrepute.”
In response to the allegations, the Cottage Grove Police Department announced Thursday that Schoen has been assigned to administrative duties “until the allegations have been investigated by the state.”
The allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances to two fellow DFL candidates and others were first reported by MinnPost.
In his statement Wednesday night, Schoen said: “I am hurt by these allegations and take them seriously. I can honestly say they are either completely false or have been taken far out of context. It was never my intention to leave the impression I was making an inappropriate advance on anyone. I feel terrible that someone may have a different interpretation of an encounter, but that is the absolute truth. I also unequivocally deny that I ever made inappropriate contact with anyone.”
Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, was the caucus leader when Schoen was in the House. In 2015, he said, House leadership received a report about improper behavior by Schoen. Thissen said he immediately consulted with House staff on the proper response, then set up a meeting with Schoen and relayed that the allegations had been reported to staff.
“I emphasized that such behavior must stop,” Thissen said. He said no further incidents were reported and that he considered it important to respect the privacy of the individual who reported the behavior.
Thissen said another DFL lawmaker faced allegations of improper conduct while Thissen led the caucus, but he declined to name the individual, citing confidentiality rules.
On Friday, Maye Quade and two others wrote to Dayton and legislative officials, calling for a Task Force on Sexual Harassment to be created to "address the culture of the legislature and campaigns and create lasting change in our workplace."
Staff writers Karen Zamora and Paul Walsh contributed to this report.