A car crash involving two prominent state DFL leaders was thoroughly investigated, the head of the Minnesota State Patrol said Friday, including details about an open alcohol container that was found in the car.
The Redwood County attorney investigated and reviewed the case, after which State Auditor Julie Blaha was cited for failing to yield after slowing to a stop at Hwy. 67 and County Road 13. A story Friday by Alpha News cited State Patrol field reports noting an open can of White Claw Hard Seltzer, an alcoholic beverage, was found in the car.
"An open alcohol container was found in the vehicle ... yet nobody was charged with an open-container violation," the story states.
In response to the Alpha News report, top state Republicans said more needs to be explained about the crash.
"Elected officials are always held to a higher standard," Senate Deputy Majority Leader Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, said in a written statement.
The rollover crash involving Blaha and Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen occurred Aug. 4 after they left Farmfest in Redwood County and were headed to a DFL fundraiser.
The Jeep Cherokee driven by Blaha collided with a semitrailer truck and landed upside down in a roadside ditch. Neither woman was seriously injured, and the truck driver was unhurt.
According to State Patrol reports sent to the Star Tribune, the White Claw can was on a backpack that belonged to Franzen and was found near the back seat. When a trooper found the can, Blaha said she didn't know it was in the car and agreed to take a pre-Breathalyzer test, according to the field report. The test showed zero alcohol.
"This crash was thoroughly and objectively investigated by the State Patrol, including the driving conduct, commercial vehicle inspection, and the details surrounding the White Claw container," State Patrol Col. Matt Langer said in a statement Friday. "The file was submitted for review by the local prosecutor, consistent with other high profile cases. The result of that review was a citation issued to the driver for the driving error that caused the crash."
Donald McFarland, a spokesperson for Blaha's office, said Franzen had consumed the White Claw earlier in the day and put the can in her backpack so it could be recycled later. In the car, she was drinking a can of nonalcoholic fruit juice she had pulled from a cooler, he said.
"There was no open-container charge because law enforcement came to that conclusion," McFarland said. "I think they did their due diligence."
In a taped interview with a state trooper the day after the accident, Morgan Fire Department Assistant Chief Justin Blomeke said the can of White Claw spilled when he retrieved the backpack. He said the can must have been pretty full given how much spilled out, and that the can was "very cold" indicating it was opened recently, according to the trooper's interview notes.
When troopers arrived at the accident scene, it became clear to them that the two women were elected officials. Franzen was wearing a name tag on her blouse stating that she was with "MN Senate District 49."
When a trooper asked where they were going, Franzen said they were coming from Farmfest and headed to an "after party." She told the trooper she was an elected official and that the driver was the state auditor.
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, who also was at Farmfest, arrived at the scene in a DFL-marked van shortly after Franzen called him to report that she and Blaha had been in an accident, according to Brian Evans, communications director for the DFL. Talking to troopers, Martin asked if the women were hurt and offered to help contact their families because he was a friend of the two, Evans said.
In an e-mail sent Aug. 4 to one of the troopers investigating the crash, State Patrol Lt. Matthew Sorenson said the case would be turned over to the county attorney for review.
"In your report, do not recommend charges at this time, only put in the facts, statements and evidence you have," Sorenson instructed the trooper. "We will compile all the reports and submit a packet to the county attorney for them to review and go off of their recommendation on charges."
In October, the troopers investigating the crash were told by a supervisor via e-mail that Redwood County Attorney Jenna Peterson recommended that the State Patrol issue a citation to "the at-fault driver" for the crash. Attempts to reach Peterson on Friday were unsuccessful.
Housley said the details left more questions than answers.
"The public deserves better from their leaders and we have many questions left unaddressed from August that are only now coming to light," she said.
State GOP Party Chair David Hann also issued a written statement demanding more information about the crash. "Minnesotans deserve to know the full truth about this incident," he said.
In a written statement released Friday, Franzen said she was grateful that the investigation had brought the matter to a close. "There was absolutely no drinking and driving on August 4, nor was alcohol a factor in the accident," she said.