Minnesota AG Nominee Wants to Defund Corporate Law Enforcement

In the increasingly fierce race for Minnesota attorney general, Republican challenger Jim Schultz has embraced a strange vision for the office he hopes to take from incumbent Keith Ellison. In comments first reported by Axios last week, Schultz suggested that Ellison and his predecessors have spent too much time chasing “frivolous” lawsuits that have harmed the bottom line of targeted business. Instead, Schultz would “reallocate resources from [those] divisions” toward aiding county attorneys who lack the resources to prosecute crimes. In other words, Schultz intends to defund corporate and nonprofit legal enforcement.

The comments were reported the day before federal authorities announced indictments in a sweeping fraud investigation against the sham nonprofit Feeding Our Future, which managed to steal millions of dollars in federal aid meant to ease child hunger during the pandemic. While the Minnesota attorney general’s office has limited jurisdiction over fraudulent receipt of federal funds, Ellison’s office appears to have set the federal investigation in motion by tipping off the FBI about the fake charity’s suspicious behavior.

While Schultz’s comments are eyebrow-raising in light of the massive federal fraud case that Ellison’s office helped pull together, they are indicative of the candidates’ respective backgrounds. While Ellison has spent most of his career in public service—first in the state legislature and U.S. Congress and now as attorney general—Schultz has spent the entirety of his brief career in the private sector, advising the same companies he believes are getting too much heat from the attorney general’s office. Over just ten years practicing law, Schultz has worked for prestigious corporate legal firms Kirkland & Ellis and Dorsey & Whitney, and as an attorney and in-house counsel for investment firms.

Representatives for Schultz’s campaign did not respond to a request to explain whether he stands by his comments about defunding nonprofit and corporate enforcement within the attorney general’s office. Requests for Schultz to explain the legal justification for the purported reallocation, as well as his views on the role of the attorney general’s office in curtailing corporate power and monopolistic behavior more broadly, also went unreturned.

While Schultz appears willing to go to great lengths to shield bad corporate actors from legal scrutiny, Ellison has made consumer protection a hallmark of his tenure. At the Midwest Forum on Fair Markets last week, Ellison declared antitrust enforcement the “number one” issue, telling attendees that it underlies struggles to curb inflation, climate change, and a host of other social ills.

Schultz’s ill-timed comments are part of a broader effort from his campaign to cast blame for Minnesota’s uptick in crime on Ellison, despite the office’s fundamental lack of jurisdiction in most relevant criminal cases. While the attorney general’s office can and does provide support for underresourced county attorneys who are struggling to prosecute cases in their docket, Minnesota statute dictates that the majority of the office’s resources be reserved for the corporate and nonprofit legal work that Schultz dismissed.

Schultz’s attacks are belied by the obvious progress Ellison has made toward using his office’s limited authority to address crime. Ellison has already stretched his statutory authority by assigning two more prosecutors to assist county attorneys—when he began his term, there was only one. And Ellison has made several formal requests to the state legislature for the funding necessary to boost that team to nine full-time members, the number that the Minnesota County Attorneys Association has said is necessary to bolster underresourced departments. The state Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, has refused to fund that request.

More importantly, Ellison has used the office’s power to create an accountability structure for an entire array of crimes that have gone virtually unpunished throughout state history: those committed by the police. Without Ellison’s intervention in Derek Chauvin’s prosecution, Minnesota would have the ignominious distinction of never having successfully prosecuted a law enforcement officer for murder. (A previous third-degree murder conviction against Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was overturned on appeal.)

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman—like former Hennepin County Attorney and current Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar before him—has a history of favorable treatment toward cops accused of violent crimes. Prior to Ellison’s entrance to the case, Freeman appeared set to only pursue manslaughter charges against Chauvin, despite the compelling video evidence indicating he was guilty of murdering George Floyd. But after Ellison’s team stepped in, the two made a joint announcement of more aggressive charges against Chauvin, including second- and third-degree murder. Chauvin was eventually found guilty on all charges. The Minnesota Supreme Court ultimately vacated the third-degree murder charge, as they did with Noor, but the more serious second-degree murder conviction remains intact.

Ellison’s ability to prosecute violent crimes by police was tested again only a short time later, when his office took over the prosecution of Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter, who accidentally shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in 2021. The case was seen as exceptionally difficult to prosecute, given how rare it is for police officers to face manslaughter charges over negligent killings. By securing another guilty verdict, Ellison’s office established a clear precedent: While he is in office, Minnesota police will be held accountable for crimes against civilians. Those verdicts also likely helped stave off the kind of uprisings that swept Minneapolis and the nation following George Floyd’s murder in May of 2020.

Schultz has declined to praise or criticize Ellison for leading the Chauvin prosecution. In a Fox News interview yesterday, Schultz reiterated his support for defunding corporate and nonprofit crimes in favor of a larger division that focuses on crimes outside the office’s jurisdiction. He did soften his tough on crime rhetoric for a moment, though—to lament Ellison’s tough prosecution of Potter’s crime. “He upcharged her, ignored the recommendation of county prosecutors… ultimately put her in prison for two years for a serious mistake,” Schultz said.

Schultz has also lasered in on Ellison’s endorsement of a 2021 ballot measure that would have restructured the Minneapolis Police Department to allow for stronger oversight, staffing flexibility, and greater integration with the city’s social services. Schultz and the Minnesota GOP have repeatedly used that endorsement to claim Ellison is weak on crime and supports defunding the police. But unlike Schultz’s explicit calls to redirect resources away from pursuing corporate and nonprofit offenses, the ballot measure’s impact on the Minneapolis Police Department’s resources was to ultimately be decided by the city council, which already controls the department’s funding levels.

The tenuous nature of Schultz and his allies’ criticisms of Ellison relies on the public’s shallow understanding of the purview of the attorney general’s office. It also relies on the public’s deference to law enforcement officials, who, despite record levels of funding, continue to investigate and solve crimes at dismal rates. Those officials have endorsed Schultz in droves, apparently eager for an attorney general who will bring back the old status quo, which allowed Minnesota cops to commit crimes with impunity. If corporations gain further impunity out of the deal, it would mean the legal system was once again serving to protect those it was intended to constrain.

Source: prospect.org

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