Minnesota ethics panel defers action on senator charged with burglary until after next court date

Minnesota state Sen. Nicole Mitchell, a Democrat from Woodbury who faces an ethics hearing Tuesday stemming from her arrest on a felony burglary charge, is shown seated at her desk on the Senate floor in the State Capitol in St. Paul, on Monday, May 6, 2024. Mitchell told police she broke in last month because her stepmother refused to give her items of sentimental value from her late father. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

By STEVE KARNOWSKI Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota Senate ethics panel deferred further action Tuesday night on a complaint against a lawmaker who’s charged with burglary for allegedly breaking into her estranged stepmother’s house until after her next court date.

Democratic Sen. Nicole Mitchell, of Woodbury, told police she broke in last month because her stepmother refused to give her items of sentimental value from her late father, including his ashes, according to the felony criminal complaint.

The ethics panel, which is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans, deadlocked on several potential paths until the members decided to return June 12. One of Mitchell’s attorneys, Bruce Ringstrom Jr., told them she might enter a plea at her next court hearing, which is set for June 10, but said the proceeding could be delayed. The decision means the panel will take no further action before the legislative session’s adjournment deadline of May 20.

“Sen. Nicole Mitchell’s actions are a clear violation of Senate rules and leave the Minnesota Senate under a cloud of distrust,” Republican Sen. Eric Lucero, of St. Michael, told the ethics panel.

“This was a planned and deliberate action, not a decision made on a whim,” said Republican Sen Karin Housley, of Stillwater.

But Democratic Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, of Minneapolis, who chairs the panel, told his colleagues that the prudent thing to do was to wait until the evidence could be tested for accuracy.

Mitchell’s status has posed a dilemma for her fellow Democrats because they hold only a one-seat majority in the Senate, so they need her vote to pass anything that lacks bipartisan support. They have excluded her from caucus meetings and taken her off her committees but have not publicly asked her to quit.

Mitchell resumed voting last week on the Senate floor, even on votes that affect her fate.

She attended Tuesday’s hearing but did not speak. Ringstrom told the panel that Mitchell would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to answer any questions the members might ask. He also refused to confirm or deny the accuracy of the key allegations in the criminal complaint, as well as news reports that Republicans introduced as exhibits in the ethics case.

Ringstrom said Mitchell “desperately wants to tell her story, but I am not letting her.” He urged the panel to defer action until her criminal case is resolved, saying she’d be happy to answer their questions once it’s complete.

A Republican panel member, Sen. Andrew Matthews, of Princeton, said the Senate has the authority to determine whether Mitchell has violated its ethics rules and does not need to wait for the courts.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, of East Grand Forks, who has called on Mitchell to resign, told reporters last week that she deserves due process in court. But, he said, the Senate should hold legislators to a higher standard, even if it’s politically difficult. He said it’s not right for Democrats to protect her because they need her vote.

Ringstrom refused on Mitchell’s behalf to say whether any Democratic senators have asked her to step down.

No Senate seats would normally be on the ballot this November. But the state chairman of the Democratic Party in Minnesota, Ken Martin, said recently that he’d like for Mitchell to resign by June 8 so that her seat could be filled in a special election on election day. Mitchell represents a mostly Democratic suburban St. Paul district that would be easier for Democrats to hold if it’s on the November ballot when turnout should be high.

The ethics panel earlier Tuesday deadlocked 2-2 on party lines on how to proceed with a long dormant complaint filed by Democrats last year against Republican Sen. Glenn Gruenhagen, of Glencoe. He sent an email to colleagues during a debate over trans rights in the 2023 session that included a link to a medical school video showing gender-transition surgery. It included a note saying it documented “mutilating transgender surgeries on minor children. Extremely graphic and disturbing.” The panel was due to return Wednesday to discuss possible next steps in the case.