Wednesday, March 29, 2006

COLUMN -- Resolution of Johnson controversy does little to get at the truth

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:27 AM |  

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson and the Senate Ethics Committee left Minnesotans wanting for a few good men.

In response to a weak resolution by the Senate Ethics Committee, Johnson issued a brusque apology this week on the Senate floor for remarks made to New London pastors in which he claimed assurances from state Supreme Court justices that they would "not touch" Minnesota's marriage law. Johnson's 80 seconds of remorse closed out the ethics complaint and the Senate's interest in his shifting claims about conversations with state Supreme Court justices.

Last week, Republicans filed an ethics complaint against Johnson. It was referred to a bipartisan, four-member Special Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct.

You want answers? "One of the things we're going to ask Sen. Johnson," said Sen. Mike McGinn, R-Eagan, "is 'Who'd you talk to, when did you talk to them and what did they tell you?' "

But McGinn's question was never asked; the issue of judicial integrity was never addressed; the truth was never pursued — and that's just fine with everybody.

Ellen Sampson, Johnson's attorney, stated that the senator did not believe that his statements, although inaccurate, violated Senate rules. The ethics committee went into closed session (later made public) charged not with investigating to see if Johnson's statements were true, but only to resolve IF they were true, would Johnson have violated Senate rules? If the answer were yes, then they would decide how to proceed.

Behind closed doors, Sampson said Johnson had three meetings in his office with a member of the court with witnesses present and two less formal discussions (which contradicts a statement by Chief Justice Russell Anderson that such discussions "never happened"). Sampson acknowledged that no justice made any assurances or commitments, but gay rights were discussed in general terms. Based on these discussions, Johnson formed an opinion, stated it badly, and has apologized, she noted.

You want the truth? Considering Sampson's comments, the committee discussed what might happen if the ethics complaint went forward. Could members of the state Supreme Court be compelled to testify before the committee? Did grants of immunity come into play? What are the separation of powers issues? What role would the Board of Judicial Standards have?

Tough questions that don't have easy answers. But still, one must ask — should the search for truth be predicated on how difficult it is? Johnson claims he had conversations with justices about a potential case. Anderson denies such conversations took place. That's the issue, and moving it forward was in the hands of the ethics committee. They punted. Sampson went on the offensive.

Sampson laid out the proposal calling for Johnson to concede probable cause (without actually admitting he violated Senate rules) and make a formal apology on the Senate floor. The committee suggested that Johnson write a letter of apology to the pastors' group and the state Supreme Court. Sampson rejected a letter to the court. It wasn't brought up again. With the two apologies, the complaint would be dropped. The vote was 4-0.

You can't handle the truth. In an awkward press conference, the ethics committee rationalized its resolution. Asked about getting to the truth of the matter, members glanced uncertainly at each other. Senate President Jim Metzen, DFL-South Saint Paul, said he "didn't know how to answer." Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield, added that the uncertainties about procedural matters regarding the testimony of justices implied no guarantee the committee could have arrived at the truth. The consensus: The committee avoided partisanship, had a bipartisan vote, the process worked.

On Monday, Johnson again apologized for his "inaccurate statement," saying he had received no assurances about the fate of the marriage law from any Minnesota Supreme Court justice. He did not deny conversations took place.

You still want the truth? You can't handle the truth — that is, the version of truth this resolution of the Johnson controversy feeds us.

In a world of legislative politics, embellishment is routine. Deep down, senators don't want to judge a colleague's conduct too harshly, lest they be held to the same standard. Fact is, we need a Dean Johnson to occasionally "sand off the truth." If we demand that politicians "get things done" for us, we shouldn't question the manner in which they do it. They'd rather we just say "thank you," Dean Johnson, and move on.

Lacking a few good men, we can't do any better.