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Disgraced sexual harasser Tony Cornish reappears at the Minnesota House

Tony Cornish, seen here conversing with Rep. Joe McDonald (R-Delano), attended several Minnesota House hearings Tuesday.

Tony Cornish, seen here conversing with Rep. Joe McDonald (R-Delano), attended several Minnesota House hearings Tuesday. Jennifer Schultz

How soon should you return to the place you serially sexually harassed women, leading to a very public fall from grace and resignation from elected office?

A. Never

B. Never

C. Seriously, this might be the dumbest question of all time. The answer is obviously "Never."

D. "Oh, I don't know. A few months, maybe. What time is it now?"

Those first three answers will look pretty good to most of us. Tony Cornish is not like most of us. For reasons that remain unclear, the former Republican lawmaker resurfaced at Minnesota's State Office Building on Tuesday.

While back at his old haunts, Cornish observed hearings of the Minnesota House of Representatives, the same body that hired an outside consulting firm to investigate Cornish's harassment of at least two women, and imposed mandatory sexual harassment training of its members as a direct response to the Cornish scandal. 

Cornish stepped down in November, following accusations from first-term legislator Rep. Erin Maye Quade (DFL-Apple Valley), who produced inappropriate text messages she'd received from Cornish, and Sarah Walker, a prominent lobbyist who frequently advocates on social and criminal justice issues.

That area of interest meant Walker was often forced to reckon with Cornish, who chaired the House committee on public safety and "crime prevention." During the course of their working relationship, Cornish propositioned Walker for sex on dozens of occasions, including sometimes in his office. Once, according to Walker, Cornish told her she couldn't leave a one-on-one meeting because he had a "raging boner," which he then showed to her; another time she says he tried to kiss her forcibly. 

Cornish resigned from office as part of a negotiated settlement with Walker, and offered what her attorney called a "heartfelt" apology; he also paid her legal fees. Gov. Mark Dayton called a special election to replace both Cornish and DFL Sen. Dan Schoen (Cottage Grove), who also stepped down after harassment victims came forward.

Cornish's House District 23B seat, which represents Blue Earth County in southern Minnesota, was won by Jeremy Munson, a Republican. And that was that. Or it could've been, anyway.

But apparently Cornish was not content to let resigning under pressure be his final involvement with the Minnesota House of Representatives. Acting as if there was no reason for him not to be there, the (recently!) disgraced ex-lawmaker showed up Tuesday morning to take in proceedings.

His presence was not lost on fellow members, including Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, who snapped a cell phone picture of Cornish, and says he attended "several" committee hearings, standing  in the back of the room and conversing "privately" with other Republican lawmakers. Rep. Joe McDonald (R-Delano) is seen chatting with Cornish in the picture Schultz tweeted Tuesday.

Individual GOP legislators obviously took no issue with Cornish's return. How about House leaders? Are they comfortable with him hanging around? 

We don't know yet. House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) and House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers) did not respond on Tuesday to City Pages' request for comment.

Cornish's return to the scene of his crimes is troubling enough, given that both Walker and Maye Quade, the women he harassed, still work there. Schultz came up with another unsettling thought. 

"Several legislators were uncomfortable with [Cornish's] presence," she says, "because we know he has a concealed gun and he may be disgruntled for his forced resignation from the Legislature."

It wasn't clear to Schultz why Cornish had turned up. He won't say, either. Asked what brought him back so soon, Cornish told City Pages: "Read the editorials the next few days, and you'll see the mission I'm on."

Though cryptic, his explanation makes perfect sense. The risk of retraumatizing your victims and alarming everyone else in the building is absolutely, 100 percent worth it, if you think there's a decent chance you might influence the content or tenor of a few newspaper editorials.

If only there was some other way to reach people, telephonically perhaps, that would not force you to revisit the very site where you, an elected representative of government, once told a well respected and deeply uninterested social justice advocate that she should check out your "raging boner."

UPDATE: After this story published, City Pages heard from two of its subjects. One was Tony Cornish, who sent a link to an op-ed piece he penned for the Star Tribune. Unsurprisingly, the topic was gun control legislation; even less surprisingly, Cornish is opposed. Reading the op-ed gives no indication why Cornish needed to be present inside the State Office Building Tuesday.

The other source was far more revelatory. Rep. Erin Maye Quade (DFL-Apple Valley) wrote City Pages to say one of her bills was on the agenda during Tuesday morning's House Taxes Committee hearing -- the same one Cornish just so happened to show up to watch. Maye Quade had wanted to post a selfie depicting her and two legislative fellows as she prepared to present the bill. She says she decided against it when she realized the blurry figure "just looming in the background" was her harasser.

Erin Maye Quade

Erin Maye Quade

Says Maye Quade: "Cornish came in and stood behind where I was sitting for about (I’m told) more than 30 [minutes]. I refused to turn around and check myself."