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Minnesota’s Lawbreaking Lawmakers Sully Clean-Government Image

January 22, 1996

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ Convictions for telephone fraud, domestic abuse and shoplifting. Accusations of bribery and perjury. A federal indictment alleging a million-dollar swindle.

Last week was tough for Democrats in the Minnesota Legislature.

``We’ve had individuals who got in trouble. Don’t ask me why,″ said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe. ``I can’t explain it.″

Republicans can.

``Arrogance of power,″ Republican House Minority Leader Steve Sviggum says.

Democrats have long enjoyed supremacy in Minnesota. The state was the only one to back Democrat Walter Mondale for president in 1984, and voters resisted the Republican surge in 1994, keeping Democrats in the majority at the statehouse.

Indeed, Democrats have controlled both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature for most of the last quarter-century _ but their recent troubles have given Republicans hope that things will be different in 1996.

The power shift may have begun Jan. 16, the opening day of the Minnesota Legislature.

A majority of the House voted to expel Democratic Rep. Bob Johnson. He had been caught driving drunk three times in 6 1/2 weeks, threatening a state commissioner and lying to police and others.

But two-thirds are required for expulsion, so Johnson was censured instead.

In the senate, 15-year incumbent Joe Bertram resigned just minutes before an ethics committee was getting ready to vote to kick him out. Bertram’s offense: shoplifting an $89.95 black leather vest from a store in his hometown of Paynesville, pop. 2,275.

He compounded the offense, according to the shopkeeper, by offering a $1,000 bribe to get the charges dropped.

The shopkeeper, in sworn testimony at the Capitol, also accused Bertram’s younger brother _ House member Jeff Bertram _ of trying to get the charges dropped.

Adding to his troubles, Joe Bertram’s sworn testimony contradicted his statements in court, leading to questions of perjury.

It didn’t end there.

Two Democratic state senators were ordered to apologize to the Senate. Sen. Kevin Chandler admitted hitting his wife while she held their 3-year-old daughter in a public parking lot. And Sen. Sam Solon confessed to letting his ex-wife make $2,430 in taxpayer-paid phone calls on his Senate line, this after letting a lobbyist make $3,000 in such calls three years ago.

More trouble is pending for two other senators.

Sen. Florian Chmielewski awaits sentencing for letting unauthorized people use his Senate phone line, including musicians trying to set up gigs for the Chmielewski family polka band, and his son, who told investigators he felt justified using the account to buy and sell used slot machines because he felt ``violated by the government.″

Sen. Skip Finn, the first American Indian to serve in the Minnesota Senate, also faces a multi-count federal indictment accusing him and two others of plotting to steal nearly $1 million in an insurance scheme.

Some say the misdeeds are only making headlines because voters in Minnesota aren’t used to such shenanigans from their lawmakers.

``What would be regarded in a lot of places as real minor transgressions get a lot of play,″ said state Sen. Gene Merriam, a Democrat who fought for tougher punishments in the Senate.

But although his party may have given the GOP enough mud to sling right up to Election Day, Merriam worries that the spate of embarrassments, and the relatively light punishments dished out, will hurt the entire legislature in the long run.

``If you go out and talk to people away from that institution, they don’t think (lawmakers) are responding appropriately at all,″ he said.

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