Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison returned Tuesday to the Legislature — for a fourth term — to ask for more money to hire criminal attorneys to help rural district attorneys handle cases. hard as murder.
But a lot has changed since the DFLer last plea, unlucky, with the legislators for a small part of the surplus is very large.
The Republican majority has disappeared in the state Senate, where Ellison’s plan has been stalled because of GOP displeasure on other issues such as enforcement of executive orders to ban restaurants in during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the November election, Ellison also defeated his Republican opponent Jim Schultz, who has increased the expansion of the criminal division of the AG. a key promise on the way to the competition. Schultz has pledged to transfer lawyers from a large consumer protection group if he can’t get money from lawmakers.
Now that Democrats control the Legislature, it’s cleared the way for Ellison to consolidate his sales team and hire seven full-time attorneys and two paralegals. . In two hearings last Tuesday, some Republicans objected to the $4.3 million bill, questioning whether the Attorney General needed money for lawyers, or Ellison’s work also deserves more oversight from politicians.
However, Ellison’s request has been quickly checked because the DFL is trying to show that it is addressing violent crime, a top issue for many voters in the 2022 election.
“We’re back at it,” Ellison said in an interview. “Back to it, back to it. Because we think this is an important addition for the people of the state of Minnesota and will improve public safety.
Why Ellison wants some criminal lawyers
Adding prosecutors has been a priority for Ellison since he first took office in 2018. At the time, the state had only one attorney. government, although he shifted resources within the office to add two more.
However, Ellison has asked the Legislature in three separate years for additional funding to hire more prosecutors and expand the group’s footprint.
Those lawyers help district attorneys prosecute serious crimes. The AG has taken cases, when asked, in the Twin Cities metro area – particularly in the prosecution of former police officers Derek Chauvin and Kim Potter in the murders of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. But most of the requests come from district attorneys in Greater Minnesota, where there are two dozen offices with only two or fewer attorneys.
Small county attorneys’ offices don’t have the time or experience to handle some of the more complex cases, said Clearwater County Attorney Kathryn Lorsbach, at a hearing in the Senate and Local Government and Veterans Committee on Tuesday.
Lorsbach said, as he did last year, that the AG’s office was assigned to assist when his office handled a pair of murders, a case involving allegations sexual assault against a school resource officer, and lawsuits related to protests over Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline. All this happened within the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To say we were overwhelmed would be an understatement,” Lorsbach said.
Freeborn County Attorney David Walker was one of several rural attorneys who wrote the Legislature in support of the bill. He is tell the councilors of the House The AG’s office is assisting Freeborn County in two cases that “would push us beyond the breaking point without their help.”
And Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said in a letter Although the AG assisted district attorneys seeking assistance in homicide cases, the lack of resources meant Ellison was “unable to accept requests for assistance in other cases involving violent crimes.” , white collar crime, money laundering, federal habeas corpus petitions, and many county drug or human trafficking charges.”
In the face of accusations of being lax on crimes on the campaign trail, Ellison said the AG’s office took on all the “serious” criminal cases requested by district attorneys.
But Acting AG David Voigt told a Senate panel Tuesday that they had turned away a case in which an officer shot at one person in Mower County, although AG spokesman John Stiles said the Olmsted County district attorney who took the case later declined to charge the officer. a crime. The office was also unable to do some appeal work. Voigt also said that for the most part, district attorneys don’t ask for help in cases other than homicide because they know the AG’s office doesn’t have the resources.
“Because of our limited resources we have not been able to do history in ten and almost 20 years to take cases other than murder cases,” said Voigt.
Stiles said he is not aware of a case that Ellison refused to take, or a request for his office to handle the types of crimes listed by Small and the district attorney.
Small said in a subsequent interview that Ellison “has bent over backwards to try to take on any important case that we’ve asked him to take on,” but they would like “to get more help from his office. “
“Maybe we didn’t ask because we knew they didn’t have the resources to do it,” said Small.
It was a request that was stopped a few days ago
DFLers, who hold a majority in the state House, have supported Ellison’s proposal in the past.
But the Republicans who controlled the Senate from 2017 to 2022 rejected the request. Last year, Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said Ellison has the time and resources to shut down businesses and should be able to prosecute crimes with the money and staff he already has. And he pushed for a new $100,000 training program for district attorneys that would have been cheaper than Ellison’s proposal.
Schultz, the GOP candidate for attorney general, in contrast wanted about 36 prosecutors to make solving a wave of violent crimes a priority of the office. And he said that if the Legislature cannot fund part or all of those requests, he will transfer resources and attorneys from other areas in the office to crime first.
For his part, Ellison argued that the office must handle some legal work, making it difficult to shift resources. And he also worried that removing part of the consumer protection system would leave vulnerable people vulnerable.
According to the Attorney General, his budget is not in line with the economy, although the politicians have passed additional money for the entire office in the past years. And Ellison notes that 36 attorneys would be too many and more of a fantasy than a real need.
On Tuesday, Ellison told MinnPost that the request for seven attorneys was based on discussions with the district attorney. “We are part of the group and we asked them what do you think of what is needed?” And they gave us answers, and that’s what we put in our budget.”
The DFL will quickly process the AG’s request
In a pair of committee hearings in the Legislature, Democrats raised the $4.3 million bill and said that the speech at the beginning of the meeting is a priority. The bill would stop other committees before a vote.
“Funding has long been necessary to supervise and support our 87 district attorneys,” said Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, who sponsored the measure in the Senate.
But the law did not pass those two committees with the support of both. Rep. Danny Nadeau, R-Rogers, questioned whether the AG could do better with his money to skip a larger budget. “What I’m trying to prove is whether or not consumer protection lawyers can be legalized,” Nadeau said. “Isn’t there a good situation in that office? The focus was on consumer protection almost exclusively.
Representative Jim Nash, R-Waconia, requested a report on how the new money was spent after it was allocated. (The AG issues a general report on his criminal activities.)
“I don’t deny that there are needs from the point of view of the police, I know that there is a fair amount of bad people out there, not only murder and false defamation and abuse,” Nash said.
But Nash said he believes the AG is off the hook in some cases. He raised an example that the Minnesota Department of Education wanted, but couldn’t do better. $580,000 in legal fees after the scandal Feeding Our Future filed a The state said it was a mistrial. The AG represents state officials in court. Federal prosecutors have brought several charges against people affiliated with the nonprofit organization for alleged fraud. “I hope you can put a better price than you did on that,” Nash said.
In the Senate, Republicans on the state government committee said the bill was written in such a vague way that it could be uncertain how to spend money on criminal lawyers.
Ellison said after the House hearing that he was not surprised the GOP opposed his bill after Schultz and the GOP pushed for more criminal prosecutions to tackle violent crimes.
“I think we’re still falling into bias and expansion,” he said. “Hopefully on the floor they will vote.”