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Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is increasingly being asked to lead police prosecutions, is again meeting legislative resistance in his bid to build up his office's criminal division.
Ellison inherited an office with just one full-time criminal attorney a decade after it had about a dozen prosecutors. Keeping with an early priority of his first term, he sought this year to swell his office's ranks with 11 new prosecutors in a request to the Minnesota Legislature.
Yet that ask went unanswered despite a late push from House Democrats to include the funding in the compromise state government finance bill on the verge of passage.
"We are the prosecutor of last resort," Ellison told lawmakers Thursday during an informational hearing on the bill, which does not include money for new criminal attorneys. "Counties call on us quite frequently, we do about 12 very serious offenses a year and we do appeals all over the state. And so without any additional assistance it means we will be doing more work but we won't have any additional resources to do it."
Ellison attracted national attention this year when his office — relying largely on the work of multiple pro-bono attorneys — won a conviction in Hennepin County after prosecuting Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. Chauvin, who will be sentenced Friday, is only the second Minnesota police officer convicted of murder and the first to be convicted after being prosecuted by the Minnesota Attorney General's Office.
That success has not come without complications. Ellison repeatedly insisted that he had confidence in Washington County Attorney Pete Orput's handling of the prosecution of the ex-Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter in the April death of Daunte Wright. Yet Ellison was still asked to take over the case following weeks of intense pressure and protests urging the change — including from Wright family attorney Benjamin Crump.
Orput was already leading the case under an agreement among metro-area county attorneys to share police prosecutions to avoid conflicts of interest. But protests mounted — some outside Orput's home — over dissatisfaction over his initial decision to charge Potter with second-degree manslaughter.
Accepting the Potter case last month, Ellison noted in a statement that "I did not seek this prosecution and do not accept it lightly."
Ellison's office continues to lean on help from pro-bono attorneys in his case against Chauvin and in preparing for a scheduled March 2022 trial against the three other officers charged in connection with Floyd's May 2020 death.
The parallel police cases come as Ellison's office attempts to keep up with requests around the state from smaller county attorneys offices in need of help prosecuting serious crimes.
The compromise bill will spend $54.8 million on Ellison's office over 2022 and 2023. That's 7% less than what Gov. Tim Walz and Ellison sought for the office under the governor's revised recommendations.
Ellison and his office are still trying to persuade lawmakers to include funding for new prosecutors in the final state government spending bill.
Walz's request included $1.8 million to "gradually rebuild" Ellison's office's capacity to help county prosecutors handle violent or complex crimes, white collar cases or crimes like sex trafficking or drug trafficking that cross county borders. That capacity has dwindled since 1999, leaving the office to focus more on murder prosecutions or certain criminal sexual conduct cases in the roughly dozen cases it accepts upon request from counties each year.
Since Ellison took office in 2019, his office has taken on 26 criminal prosecutions and two death investigations, the vast majority from outstate counties around the state.
Rep. Michael Nelson, a Brooklyn Park Democrat who was the lead House negotiator on the state government bill, described the criminal attorney expansion Thursday as "one piece we were not able to get agreement on with the Senate."
"It was something that we fought hard for in negotiations but in the end of the day we were unable to get the Senate to agree to funding that one piece," Nelson said at the end of the informational hearing.
Under the agreement, Ellison's office did secure funding for a new IT case management system that will refresh attorneys' abilities to do casework by computer while also creating a new database for regulating charities in the state.
Ellison meanwhile would receive new funding to enforce violations of the new wage theft law passed in 2019 as well as additional resources to handle antitrust cases. Money for the Attorney General's Office would also help bolster security at the downtown St. Paul offices where most of its staff does its work.
The Minnesota County Attorneys Association has recommended giving the Attorney General's Office jurisdiction over all officer-involved homicide cases while also supporting attempts to expand its criminal division in the years since Ellison took office.
"There's more and more cases that we seek his assistance on and he just doesn't have the staff," said Robert Small, the association's executive director.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said in a recent interview that the Legislature played a key role in helping shape the direction of Ellison's office.
"If we want the Attorney General's Office to do this then we need to properly fund it," Choi said.
Choi is concerned that if Ellison's office is increasingly looked at to take on more police prosecutions without additional staffing, it would come at the expense of its other work to assist communities.
"My argument is we should support the Attorney General's Office regardless of what the issue is," Choi said. "We should be providing it the capacity to help those counties of need."
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755