Thursday, November 23, 2017

Ex-Minnesota House speaker says he warned embattled lawmaker

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The former speaker of the Minnesota House said he confronted Republican state Rep. Tony Cornish about rumors of sexual harassment years ago and warned him to stop, and that he thinks Cornish should now resign.

Two women, a fellow lawmaker and a lobbyist, this week accused Cornish of sexual harassment. State Rep. Erin Maye shared text messages with the Star Tribune in which Cornish talked about her appearance. The lobbyist, who asked the newspaper not to publish her name due to fear it would hurt her career, said Cornish has propositioned her for sex dozens of times and once pushed her against a wall in his office while trying to kiss her.

In a 2010 incident, the lobbyist said Cornish used crude language to point out that he had an erection and said, "You can't leave."

In a string of text messages with The Associated Press, Cornish said his exchange with Maye Quade was "obviously a congenial conversation." He called the lobbyist's accusations completely false.

"There was no interaction that even resembled that in my office," Cornish said.

Kurt Zellers, Republican House speaker in 2011 and 2012, said in a statement Friday that during his tenure as speaker, he had a private meeting with Cornish in response to his rumored behavior and warned him "in the strongest possible terms" that sexual harassment would not be tolerated and any complaints would lead to disciplinary proceedings. Zellers said he received no further reports about Cornish after that.

Zellers called for an outside investigation on Friday and said Cornish should resign and apologize to his victims. He was the first prominent Republican to call for Cornish's resignation. Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who called on a Democratic lawmaker to step down amid similar allegations, issued a statement Saturday that says the party does not tolerate sexual harassment. Despite being asked specifically whether she thinks Cornish should resign, Carnahan didn't mention him by name or call for him to step down.

By Saturday, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said in a letter to Minority Leader Melissa Hortman that an outside firm would be hired to independently investigate the allegations against Cornish, at the recommendation of the House's nonpartisan human resources staff. Cornish has already been suspended as chairman of the Public Safety and Crime Prevention committee.

Cornish didn't reply to a Saturday phone message seeking comment. A day before Zellers issued his statement, Cornish told Minnesota Public Radio that legislative leaders had never spoken to him about his conduct and he had never received a reprimand.

The allegations against Cornish surfaced after several of Minnesota's top Democrats and Republicans urged Democratic state Sen. Dan Schoen to resign over accusations that he sexually harassed women on the campaign trail. Schoen said the allegations are false or his actions were taken out of context, and he has hired an attorney.

Schoen has served in the Legislature since 2013 and also works as a police officer in the Minneapolis suburb of Cottage Grove. Cornish is a retired police officer who has served in the Legislature since 2002.

The allegations against the lawmakers come amid a tide of sexual harassment and assault allegations against powerful figures in politics, media and entertainment, including movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

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