Attorney General Keith Ellison is on the verge of what he calls a huge, early victory in his second term, with the DFL-majority Legislature pushing to give him money he's long sought to hire more lawyers for criminal prosecutions.
"We're hitting in a new gear," Ellison said in a recent interview. "We're going in the same direction, but we're going there faster and more efficiently."
So far, he's on a smoother path than his first term, which was shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and a GOP-controlled Senate that rebuffed his requests for additional funding.
He narrowly survived a tough re-election fight. Heading into 2022, Ellison was viewed as the most vulnerable DFLer on the statewide ticket. Republican challenger Jim Schultz vigorously faulted Ellison for supporting the failed Minneapolis ballot initiative to reshape the Police Department and not doing enough to fight crime or stop the $250 million Feeding Our Future pandemic fraud.
A criminal defense attorney before taking office, Ellison's political career has focused largely on economic justice. When he announced his re-election campaign in November 2021, he said "the fight for a fair economy is still on" and he tried to campaign on the theme of helping Minnesotans "afford their lives" as Schultz attacked him on crime.
Ellison said the anticipated new funding would immediately boost his crime-fighting capabilities. The bill would send an extra $269,000 to the Attorney General's Office this year and add $4 million in the next two years.
"The fact that we're gonna get some money right away sends a powerful signal that the majorities in the House and Senate want to make sure that Minnesotans are getting justice, or getting consumer protection," he said. "That's a rare, very important signal."
The money would allow Ellison to immediately hire two criminal lawyers and a paralegal, with an additional five lawyers and two paralegals coming in the next biennium beginning in July. The new hires would work with three criminal attorneys already on staff who are dedicated to assisting county attorneys on criminal prosecutions. Ellison repeatedly made the point during the campaign and more recently to legislators that his office can take on most criminal cases only at the request of those county attorneys.
Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul and a sponsor of the bill, said the money will allow Ellison's office to take on dozens more cases each year and expand into prosecutions beyond homicides, meaning it could help with other violent crimes and multicounty white-collar crimes.
"Minnesotans have told us over and over again that safety for their families and for their communities are top priorities for them," she said.
In multiple committees, Republicans pushed back, offering amendments to require the office to provide data about prosecutions and how the money is used. But DFLers held them off.
Ellison's office has an overall annual budget of $44 million and a staff of 352, including 153 attorneys. To compare, in Attorney General Skip Humphrey's final year in office in 1998, he had a staff of 510 employees, about half of whom were lawyers.
Even with the new money, Ellison said his office won't stray far from a civil law focus. "We're not shifting the fundamentals of this office," Ellison said.
Ellison said he's developing a series of civil law tools to fight crime. He's used nuisance laws to go after a problematic liquor store in north Minneapolis. He sued Fleet Farm for allegedly selling to straw gun buyers and joined the multistate lawsuit that won millions from opioid manufacturers.
He wants to increase enforcement work on wage theft, anti-trust issues and human trafficking. "We're sort of accelerating, we're doing more than we did, because we're getting more help," he said.
The conviction review unit he started in 2021 with two years of funding also received a grant to continue. "It's an important signal that our criminal justice system is never going to stop trying to figure out what really happened, and then act accordingly," he said.
On another front, he's holding public meetings throughout the state this month on the proposed mega-merger between Sanford Health and Fairview Health Services. Last week, he called for a slowdown, saying the March 31 deadline is too soon.
Asked what he learned from the Feeding Our Future fraud case, Ellison said he could have communicated better but that he did what he was supposed to do, notifying the U.S. Department of Agriculture of concerns, going to court and taking it to the Department of Justice.
"I've never had anyone without a political ax to grind say, 'Here's where you should have done ... something differently.' " he said. "I've not seen it. I mean, I've just heard people say well, maybe you could have acted quicker or how come it took so long? I'm like, you know, look, investigations take however long they take."
He also said it's not over: "We're continuing to investigate and file lawsuits."
Ellison, who was the first Muslim elected to Congress and served 12 years in the U.S. House before stepping into his current job, has recovered enough from the fall campaign that he's already eyeing a third term or a run for another statewide office. He expressed interest in running for governor or the U.S. Senate if a seat were to open.
"I'll be 63 when this term ends and that's far too young to retire," he said.