Ethics panel asks Minn. senator to apologize for Twitter message

12:26 AM, Jun 14, 2011   |    comments
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  • Senator Hoffman's Tweet about Goodwin
  • Brodkorb's retweet of Hoffman tweet

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Senate Ethics subcommittee voted Monday to dismiss an ethics complaint against a state senator if she apologizes for a Twitter message and removes it from the social media news site.

The four-member ethics panel, made up for two Republicans and two Democrats, spent more than five hours hashing over the particulars of a "tweet" posted May 18th by Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R- Vargas.

Sen. Hoffman's tweet took a line in a speech by Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL - Columbia Heights, out of context.

"Sen Goodwin just called people with mental illness - imbeciles and imbeciles - while debating HHS bill," Hoffman wrote in a posting to Twitter during the floor debate on the Human Services financing bill.

Sen. Goodwin at the time was delivering a floor speech which included a history lesson about the strides state government has made in how it regards persons with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

"This is how far we've come," Goodwin told her colleagues, "The way state institutions used to be, they were called 'institutions for idiots, imbeciles and the insane.' And that's what it said, right on the hospital; 'idiots, imbeciles and the insane'."

The overall point of the speech was to defend community based mental health spending, and warn fellow senators about the dangers of returning to the past mistreatment of that population.  She quoted a the legislature did in the 1980's during the push to move chronically mentally ill persons away from institutions.

Hoffman's original tweet reached a far larger audience when Senate Majority Communications director Michael Brodkorb retweeted it, or repeated the message to his followers. In addition to his job with the Senate Brodkorb also serves as deputy chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.

Senate Democrats demanded an apology at the time, and posted a four-minute clip of Goodwin's speech on YouTube so that viewers and reporters could see the full context of her comments.

The Senate Republican communications office responded with a statement from Hoffman repeating her claim that Goodwin called the mentally ill "idiots and imbeciles."  The news release, sent to all Capitol media May 20th, also implied that the Democrats had selectively edited Goodwin's speech to make their point.

The Republicans posted the full 12-minute speech to YouTube, and implied it would show why Hoffman was so offended by Goodwin's words. The longer version, however, only made it more clear Hoffman's tweet had been misleading and lacked context.

A third lawmaker, Sen. Ann Rest, D - New Hope, actually filed the ethics complaint in the matter. She said she did that after waiting several days to see if Hoffman would voluntarily retract the tweet or apologize.

"Each of us, as one of the 67 Senators, does need to be held to account even during an emotional debate on important topics for what each of us says," Rest told the ethics subcommittee Monday.

Hoffman did not testify, but her attorney, Fritz Knaak, told the panel she remains offended by the speech.  He said Hoffman's work with mentally ill persons as a nurse made her acutely sensitive to those disparaging labels.

The four senators spent only two hours to decide an apology was in order, but it took three more hours to come to a consensus about what exact form that apology should take.

The two Democrats, Sen. Kathy Sheran of Mankato and Sen. John Harrington of St. Paul, argued Hoffman should apologize to Goodwin and post that apology on Twitter.  They went back and forth over whether the apology should be contained to the 140-character limit of Twitter, or be a tweet with a link to a longer apology posted on the Senate's website.

Republicans on the panel, Senate President Michelle Fischbach  and Sen. Bill Ingebritsen of Alexandria, both said it would be "overkill" for Hoffman to apologize via Twitter. 

"We're asking for different apologies twice now," Sen. Ingebrigtsen said at one point.

He bristled at how much time the Democrats spent discussing the social media site, saying, "We're all caught up in this Twitter thing."

Ingebritsen asked if the complaint would simply die if the members were deadlocked, but staff advised complaints must be dismissed or affirmed.

In the end the panel decided, on a voice vote, to dismiss the ethics complaint if Hoffman apologizes in writing to Goodwin, and deletes the original tweet.

Goodwin said afterwards she was satisfied with the Ethics subcommittee's actions.

"We want to make sure that we prevent these kinds of things in the future," Goodwin told Minnesota Public Radio. "I'm hoping for a decent apology and that it's a sincere apology."

(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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