Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A not-so-final-word on Dean Johnson

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:06 PM |  

If this report in the Pioneer Press is accurate, then Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson lied under oath before the Senate Ethics Committee.

Johnson later denied that any justices had made any promises or commitments to him and apologized on the Senate floor in March for his remarks. But the controversy continued because Johnson maintained in a closed Senate ethics committee hearing that he had had conversations with more than one justice about gay rights.

"The board's investigation, however, disclosed that Sen. Johnson engaged in no conversations with any Supreme Court justice concerning any issues that relate to the definition of marriage in the state of Minnesota," the board said in a statement.

"Each Supreme Court justice independently denied ever having any conversations with Sen. Johnson on any issue relating to the definition of marriage. Sen. Johnson confirmed that no such conversations ever occurred."

The board said Johnson told them he had spoken to several justices about the unrelated issues of court administration and budgets. While those discussions didn't touch on the marriage issue, Johnson told the board that based on those exchanges he assumed the judges weren't interested in changing the definition of marriage.

The board said he made those assumptions based on conversations that never took place.

"Sen. Johnson's mistaken inferences fail to provide any reason for the board to proceed further in these cases," the statement said.
There is no reason for the board to proceed further, but the Senate Ethics Committee might be another story. To characterize Johnson’s statement as a “mistaken inference” when nothing was said about gay rights is really generous. Johnson’s attorney made a strong statement on his behalf that conversations between Johnson and justices, where same-sex marriage was discussed in general terms, did take place with witnesses present.

[From my Pioneer Press column -- Behind closed doors, Sampson (Johnson's attorney) 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.]

According to the Judicial Review Board and Johnson’s own admission, the discussions never touched on gay marriage. Johnson and his attorney were under oath in the hearing. As a consequence, the Senate Ethics Committee took no punitive action.

Johnson sat silent while his attorney made her statement. He never contradicted it. His few comments in the Ethics Committee hearing were questions about how the committee’s resolution would affect his career. No statement of remorse. After the Senate hearing, he claimed he was exonerated. He left the Supreme Court hanging under a cloud of suspicion claiming he had no control over the situation. The Judicial Review Board caught him in yet another -- post 90-seconds of remorse on the Senate floor -- “sanding off of the truth.”

Personally, if the Democrats want to keep Johnson in power, I really don’t care. But let’s not pretend this guy is a victim. Let’s not pretend Dean Johnson ever, during the whole affair, ever had even the faintest intent of telling the truth.

And let’s not pretend that the Senate Ethics Committee did its job, which is a far more serious breach of trust and greater compromise of Senate integrity than anything said or done by Dean Johnson. The Ethics Committee was charged to look out for the interests of all Minnesotans. It had an obligation to look for the truth. It didn’t even try.