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Lawmaker says letter to editor violated Minnesota Senate ethics

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Minnesota state Sen. Kent Eken of Twin Valley watches Molly O’Neill testify to a Senate committee Tuesday, March 7, 2017. Two days later, Eken complained that a fellow senator wrote a misleading letter to the editor about him. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL — A letter to the editor could lead to ethics charges against a Minnesota state senator.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said on Thursday, March 9, that he is considering asking the Senate Ethics Committee to find that Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen violated rules that ban misleading or untrue comments about a colleague.

A letter written by Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, that appeared on The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's website late Wednesday afternoon and was to appear in print Friday said Eken voted against a driver's license bill because Eken said he "wants to let illegal immigrants get driver's licenses."

In a Forum News Service interview, Eken said he never told anyone he voted against the bill because of immigrant issues. He said, however, that he agrees with some senators' concerns about privacy issues by establishing a Real ID license.

A bill to set up a "Real ID" license that would comply with federal requirements failed in the Senate Monday after the House earlier approved it. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton wants the legislation to specifically allow undocumented immigrants to be allowed to obtain licenses, while Republicans and many Democrats do not want the Real ID bill to address the issue.

Federal authorities say they will require the state to meet Real ID guidelines for Minnesotans use use driver's licenses to get onto airliners and federal facilities.

The issue has been one of the 2017 session's hot-button topics.

In an interview, Ingebrigtsen said that his comment about Eken's reason for voting against the bill was "certainly an assumption on my part."

Ingebrigtsen offered no apology for his letter claiming that Eken said he wants illegal immigrants to get driver's license, and the Republican said he stands by it, but he did issue a statement saying: "I assumed Sen. Eken and the rest of the Senate Democrats killed the bill for that reason, but if that's not the case, then I am interested to learn Sen. Eken's reasons for voting against the bill, especially considering he supported Real ID last year." In the letter, after Ingebrigtsen wrote that Eken said he voted against the bill because he wants undocumented immigrants to get licenses, the Alexandria senator added: "You read that right. Eken put illegal immigrants ahead of 5 million Minnesotans whose lives are about to get significantly more complicated."

Eken told the full Senate Thursday that Ingebrigtsen's letter made "blantely false statements," a violation of Senate rules. One rule, he said, "states a member shall not distribute or publish written material if the member knows or has reason to know that the material includes any statement that is false or clearly misleading concerning a public policy issue or a public policy issue or concerning a member or another member's' voting record or position on a public policy issue. These are rules we all agreed to, including Sen. Ingebrigtsen." Eken, who said he plans to write a rebuttal letter to the editor, told fellow senators that Ingebrigtsen was wrong when he attributed a reason to his vote. "I never made any such statement."

The Twin Valley Democrat said the Ingebrigtsen letter claim "does great harm to our ability to get things done. It creates a toxic hyperpartisan environment that destroys the congeniality that is so important for bipartisan work and solutions."

In his Senate speech and interview, Eken said he was especially distressed with the letter because rural legislators such as he and Ingebrigtsen usually work together.

Ingebrigtsen said that Eken's vote against the bill was "a loud statement" and he felt Eken "needed to answer for it."

After his speech, Eken said the two always have been friendly, but he had not talked to Ingebrigtsen about the letter.

Ingebrigtsen said he did not think the dust-up would affect their relationship.

Eken said he is talking to colleagues before deciding if he will file an ethics complaint. He said some senators have told him an ethics complaint is needed, even if Ingebrigtsen apologies, while others say an apology should derail an ethics action.

The Ethics Committee could do nothing or could take an action against Ingebrigtsen such as telling him to apologize.

"It certainly bothers me," Ingebrigtsen said about Eken considering an ethics allegation, "but he can do that if he wants."

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, tried to tone down the Senate dispute.

"We don't want senator on senator comments if you can avoid them," he said.

Ingebrigtsen is one of Gazelka's assistant majority leaders.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.