MANKATO — State Rep. Tony Cornish of Vernon Center is denying a lobbyist's claims about sexually aggressive behavior in his St. Paul office, but even the behavior he is admitting to is extraordinarily problematic, according to a Hamline University professor.
"It raises questions about how the House of Representatives does its work," said political science professor David Schultz.
The unnamed lobbyist told Minnesota Public Radio and the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Cornish made dozens of attempts over several years to initiate a sexual relationship with her when she was simply trying to track legislative issues and influence legislation coming before the committee he headed.
In one instance, according to both news outlets, Cornish informed the woman he had an erection and told her to look. In another, she said he pushed her against an office wall and tried to kiss her. In all, she estimated he propositioned her for sex at least 40 times, according to the StarTribune.
Cornish adamantly denied the accounts of what happened in his office, telling The Free Press Thursday it was "a damned lie." But Cornish acknowledged he propositioned the woman, sending her a string of text messages in which she refused his repeated requests to have sex with her, according to the Star Tribune.
“I’m an adult, I’m not a saint,” he said.
In one of the texts, sent in 2015, Cornish asked, “Would it scare you if I said that I was just interested in good times good wine good food and good sex?”
Cornish would be in clear violation of House ethics rules, state law or both if the lobbyist gave him wine, food or a campaign contribution in response to that text. The reason for those rules is to avoid any possibility — or even the perception of the possibility — that lawmakers would be influenced by gifts from lobbyists to advance certain legislative or budget priorities.
By seeking sexual favors from the lobbyist, Cornish entered that same ethical quicksand, Schultz said.
The lobbyist could easily have assumed Cornish would be more likely to push for the legislation she was seeking if she accepted his advances, less likely if she didn't.
"It's kind of quid-pro-quo sexual harassment," Schultz said of the perceptions.
The woman told the Star Tribune she never gave Cornish what he wanted, but concerns about his power as chairman of the Public Safety Committee kept her from reporting him at the time.
"He holds the most important seat for anyone who does criminal justice work," she told the newspaper. "For me to get anything done, I have to work with this guy."
In that respect, Cornish's attempts to initiate a sexual relationship with the woman is similar to a boss' sexual harassment of a subordinate, Schultz said.
Beyond allegations of sexual harassment, an incident involving solicitation of sexual favors could raise similar doubts to a lawmaker accepting campaign donations, seats in a stadium luxury box or other valuable gifts.
Soliciting sex might not be legally equivalent to soliciting a cash donation, though. In fact, a North Carolina lawmaker sought an official opinion on whether a sexual relationship with a lobbyist might put him in direct violation of that state's gift ban, Schultz said. The opinion was that it did not.
"It said an exchange of sexual favors did not violate it because it had no monetary value," he said.
But now that the story is public, and Cornish admitted he propositioned the lobbyist, there's the danger that some Minnesotans will be skeptical about how Cornish makes decisions at the Capitol.
"Has he made a judgment on public policy considerations — or because she turned down his propositions?" Schultz said. "To what extent, now, is the public going to say 'Did you make your decision based on the best interests of your constituents, the best interests of the state?'"
While paid lobbyists may not "rank high in the world in terms of 'warm and fuzzy,'" Schultz said, they aren't the only people who walk into the offices of lawmakers hoping to persuade their representatives to act one way or another on a bill or a budget. Average Minnesotans traditionally do the same.
"What if a constituent says, I want to visit Rep. Cornish on an issue. Am I going to feel like I'm going to be propositioned or asked out?" Schultz said. "I mean, think of the chilling effect."
Cornish, who has been suspended as chairman of the Public Safety Committee, didn't return calls seeking comment Friday afternoon.