Attempt to expedite ethics probe of Minnesota state senator charged with burglary fails on tie vote

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Republican attempt to expedite an ethics investigation of a Democratic Minnesota state senator who's facing a felony burglary charge failed on a tie vote Wednesday.

Sen. Nicole Mitchell was absent as the Senate met for the first time since her arrest early Monday at her estranged stepmother's home in Detroit Lakes. Mitchell told police she broke into the northwest Minnesota home because her stepmother refused to give her items of sentimental value from her late father including his ashes, according to a criminal complaint.

Mitchell was charged Tuesday with one count of first-degree burglary and released after a day in jail.

Mitchell's arrest has complicated the remainder of the 2024 legislative session because Senate Democrats hold just a one-seat majority. Senate Republican Minority Leader Mark Johnson, of East Grand Forks, who has called on Mitchell to resign, said several major bills in the pipeline are likely to be dependent on her vote.

“How can Minnesotans trust that?” he asked during the floor debate.

Democratic Majority Leader Erin Murphy, of St. Paul, told reporters that Mitchell, who is from Woodbury, will be allowed to vote remotely as the legislative and legal process plays out. Because of the turmoil, however, Democratic leaders put several bills on hold that were due for floor votes Wednesday and Thursday.

Her attorney said Mitchell's dispute with her stepmother arose out of a “fractured relationship” between the two that has been aggravated by age-related issues. In a Facebook post, Mitchell denied stealing. Her attorney has advised her not to resign.

Senate Republicans filed an ethics complaint against Mitchell before the Senate convened Wednesday, then forced a vote on a motion to immediately launch the investigation and consideration of her expulsion. Under normal Senate rules, it could take 30 days just to start the process, which would delay any action until after the legislative session, which must end by May 20.

“Senators must be held to the highest standard of ethical conduct," GOP Sen. Eric Lucero, of St. Michael, told his colleagues. "Public trust has been violated. We must have a swift examination of this serious felony charge to ensure the integrity of this institution and the state of Minnesota is upheld.”

The ethics complaint quotes extensively from Mitchell's charging papers, including her comment to the arresting officer, “I know I did something bad.”

But Democratic Sen. Nick Frentz, of North Mankato, told them Mitchell is entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence. He said other lawmakers charged with crimes in recent years were allowed to go through the legal process.

Mitchell's desk was empty for the debate, which ended in a 33-33 vote.

Murphy said a timeline for considering the GOP ethics complaint has yet to be decided.

But the process is designed to be difficult. The Senate ethics panel is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans, and any vote to expel a senator would require a two-thirds majority.

Murphy told reporters she had spoken to Mitchell only briefly, right after her release from jail on Monday. She said they focused on her well-being and her children..

“This is obviously a very tough and challenging situation for this institution,” Murphy said. “Senator Mitchell is ... going to have to have a number of difficult conversations with her family, with the people who sent her here to represent them, and with her colleagues.”