Ellison seeks $1.8 million for criminal prosecutors; GOP says he has enough

Keith Ellison speaks on Thursday. (FOX 9)

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison says he needs more funding to help overworked county attorneys with an increasing number of violent crime cases, but the request has fallen flat with legislative Republicans.

Ellison, who spoke with three Metro-area county attorneys Thursday at a news conference that was briefly disrupted by protesters, is seeking $1.8 million. That would be enough to hire seven new prosecutors, more than tripling the staff available to counties who ask for help, he said.

"It would put us in a position where we don’t have to triage and tell people no," said Ellison, a Democrat who is running for a second term this fall.

Under Minnesota law, the attorney general doesn't have jurisdiction in criminal cases unless a county attorney asks or the governor makes an appointment. There would be no way to "big-foot" any county attorney who didn't want help, Ellison said.

Republicans who control the Minnesota Senate have a tough-on-crime message, but they oppose this funding because of frustrations over Ellison's prosecutorial decisions.

Ellison has angered Republicans by bringing prosecutors into his office who are funded by outside groups. His decision to enforce Gov. Tim Walz's business closure orders during the COVID-19 pandemic also led to controversy.

"The attorney general had plenty of time and resources to shut down businesses last year, I think he has enough time and resources to prosecute crime now," said state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake. Kiffmeyer chairs a committee that controls the attorney general's office budget.

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller said he had not seen Ellison's request. He noted that the Senate's public safety omnibus bill increases funding for public defenders and police.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, and Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo vouched for Ellison's proposal Thursday.

The additional state prosecutors would help small, rural county attorneys who don't have the resources to take on major criminal cases, they said.

"All three of us have sent people out to the greater Minnesota counties to help them when they needed it and they simply couldn’t do it, because justice is for all Minnesotans," Freeman said. "That put me further behind the eight-ball (with staffing)."

But Freeman and Choi have drawn the ire of Republicans, who consider the county attorneys in Minnesota's two largest counties to be soft on crime. That echoes criticism from suburban police chiefs.

"Senators sometimes are wrong," Freeman said. "The police enforcement people who have said it are wrong because we’ve reviewed that. We prosecute the cases we must." 

A handful of protesters briefly disrupted the news conference. Capitol Security ultimately led them out of the building, and Ellison returned to the podium.