Sunday, September 25

A.G. Keith Ellison funding request caught in capitol politics


Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is asking lawmakers to expand his criminal prosecution staff which assists county prosecutors outside the Twin Cities.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota House and Senate are split on whether to give the Attorney General’s office more funding to assist local county attorneys in Greater Minnesota handle criminal cases.

The DFL-controlled House has agreed to provide $1.2 million in supplemental funding to expand the criminal prosecution unit within the A.G.’s office. The GOP-controlled Senate hasn’t agreed to it yet, despite the state’s projected $9 billion budget surplus.

“We have a solid professional group. We just need to expand it,” Attorney General Keith Ellison told reporters Thursday at the state capitol, pointing out his requests failed to gain traction in the Senate in 2019 and 2021.

“I’m asking the legislature to allow us in this moment that crime is spiking to do a little more.”

RELATED: AG Keith Ellison sues solar-panel sales companies, execs over alleged fraud

There are now three full-time criminal prosecutors in the unit, down from a high of 12 in the 1990s. Ellison said the money he’s seeking would allow him to hire seven more prosecutors plus two paralegal support staff members.

He said the existing staff has prosecuted 38 serious crime cases in 22 different counties since 2019, but the requests for help exceed the caseload his staff can handle. That’s why prosecutors in smaller counties often turn to county attorneys in the metro area to lend a hand.

“In Greater Minnesota they are fighting the battle we in the metro also have to fight, but we have many resources to be able to do that. They do not,” Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo told reporters.

Palumbo was one of three veteran metro prosecutors who joined Ellison at his press conference to lend their support to the idea of beefing up Attorney General’s prosecution unit.

“All three of us from the counties have sent people out to Greater Minnesota counties to help them when they needed help and they simply couldn’t do it,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman explained.

“Because justice is for all Minnesotans.”

Freeman said in some smaller venues the prosecutors have to double as the civil attorney, so they must handle everything ranging from rural ditch law to murder cases.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said complex cases often require expertise that’s not available to county attorneys in smaller towns, which is why those prosecutors reach out to the Attorney General’s office for help.

“They would be complicated murder cases. They would be human trafficking cases. They would be cases that take a long time to try, a level of expertise they don’t have in house.”

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller didn’t comment directly Thursday on Ellison’s request, saying it would need to be worked out during negotiations between the House and Senate between now and the end of session May 23.

“I’m not sure on what exactly their request is but we will let the conference committees and chairs of those committees work through that and see if they can find common agreement,” Sen. Miller told reporters.

He pointed out that the Senate’s public safety package includes more funding for the state court system and the public defender’s office.

RELATED: Minnesota public defenders reach deal to avert strike

Conference committees are special panels made up of equal numbers of Senators and House members who try to hammer out a blended, compromise version of the bills passed separately by the two chambers. Senate Public Safety Chair Warren Limmer of Maple Grove and House Public Safety Chair Carlos Mariani would lead those negotiations, if they can happen before the session clock runs down.

The Attorney General’s office most often makes the news for consumer protection lawsuits filed by the civil division. The office is also responsible for representing all state government agencies, executive branch officials and state boards in lawsuits and other civil actions.

When Ellison was asked to take over prosecution of the Derek Chauvin case his team included attorneys from his own staff, local prosecutors and other attorneys who agreed to work on a pro bono basis, or for free.

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