AG Ellison asks Legislature for money to hire additional criminal prosecutors

Wish granted?

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was back at the state Legislature this week asking for $4.3 million to hire criminal prosecutors, and this time it appears he'll get his wish.

Ellison repeatedly asked for the funding during his first term, but Republicans blocked the request over concerns about Ellison's priorities and political views. Democrats hold the majorities now, and top lawmakers have identified the attorney general's request as a priority. Bills cleared House and Senate committees this week.

With the new funding, Ellison plans to hire seven new criminal attorneys and two paralegals, bringing his criminal division to 10 lawyers.

"There are counties who have contacted us very recently and we want to meet their needs right away, so we’ve asked for some money earlier," Ellison told lawmakers this week.

County attorneys have endorsed the move, telling lawmakers they need help prosecuting cases after an increase in violent crime statewide over the past three years. By law, the attorney general's office can only take a criminal case when a county attorney or the governor asks.

Clearwater County Attorney Kathryn Lorsbach said she's brought in the attorney general's office to handle two murder cases and another case that involved a school resource officer who was sexually abusing students. Clearwater County, west of Bemidji, has just two prosecutors on staff.

"The attorney general's office didn't hesitate. They agreed to take the cases, they secured convictions, and they continue to prosecute allegations that have recently come to light," Lorsbach said.

Republicans raised several concerns during House and Senate hearings this week. First, they questioned a DFL amendment that removed specific references to the seven attorneys and two paralegals that Ellison says he'll hire.

"I suspect it would pass the Legislature much easier if there was less doubt about it," said state Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.

John Keller, the chief deputy attorney general, told senators there were no "shenanigans" going on, and the money would be used for enhanced criminal prosecution. Earlier in the day, Ellison said his office doesn't handle low-level criminal cases.

Other Republicans accused Ellison of misaligned priorities. Echoing calls from Ellison's GOP challenger in the 2022 election, Jim Schultz, they said Ellison should reassign prosecutors from his much larger consumer division into criminal cases. Ellison has said that's impossible because state law requires him to defend various consumer laws.

During Ellison's first term, the attorney general's office accepted 47 cases from county attorneys. It turned away one case -- a police shooting in Austin -- because of a lack of staff capacity, said John Stiles, a spokesman for Ellison. The Mower County attorney referred it to Olmsted County, which reviewed the case and declined charges, Stiles said.

State Rep. Jim Nash questioned why Ellison's office was unable to root out $250 million in federal nutrition assistance fraud at Feeding Our Future while state prosecutors defended the Minnesota Department of Education against a sham lawsuit filed by Feeding Our Future. The fraud went on for months until the state got the FBI involved, leading to dozens of indictments.

"I hope you can provide better value than you did with that," Nash, R-Waconia, told Ellison.

The bills require votes in multiple committees before getting to the House and Senate floors. Democrats said they need to pass the legislation quickly, while taking digs at Republicans for blocking it in recent years.

"It is long overdue funding necessary to look out for and support our 87 county attorneys," said state Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.