With full DFL control at Minnesota Capitol, Ellison may get his wish for AG office

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A year has not gone by without Keith Ellison asking lawmakers for more funding for the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General.

He wants to add at least ten prosecutors, who would focus solely on criminal investigations. 

It would cost $2 million, triple the criminal division’s staff, and cement an increased role for the office not seen since the days of Skip Humphrey.

After watching his request stall in the republican controlled Senate all four years he’s been in office, Ellison enters his second term as Attorney General with renewed confidence.

“I’m an optimistic guy,” Ellison said in an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES. “I have all the reasons in the world to think we’re going to get there this time.”

Ellison not only pulled out a razor-thin victory on election night, so did senate democrats. For the first time in a decade, the DFL has full control of the state legislature and a record surplus to help set the budget.

“We’re looking for a reinvestment in the Attorney General’s office,” he said.

FILE – Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison seeks to increase criminal prosecutions in his second term
to levels not seen since the 1990’s. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr, File)[ASSOCIATED PRESS/Abbie Parr]

What he considers a “reinvestment” would reshape how and when his office is called on to handle criminal cases around the state. Right now, the vast majority of crimes are prosecuted by county attorneys.

Smaller counties can quickly be overwhelmed by big cases.

“When there is a murder, we can accommodate them on those, when there is a massive white collar mess or theft case, they’re kind of on their own unless they can get the feds to do it,” Ellison said. “We just don’t have enough bandwidth to cover those kinds of cases. Historically, we did.”

Ellison looks back to the days of Skip Humprey, who held the office more than 20 years ago. Humphrey had at least 12 full-time attorneys in the criminal division. 

By the time Ellison took office in 2019, there was only one prosecutor to handle referrals from county attorneys across the state.

Hamline Law Professor David Schultz said the legislature started to whittle the office down in the 1990s because of a changing philosophy.

“I think the idea of doing criminal justice or criminal prosecution was just viewed as a local responsibility,” Schultz said.

But Schultz says the primary focus – and demands – of the AG’s office is now evolving again.

“What I call a post sort of George Floyd era, in an era where we’re trying to rethink policing, rethink approaches to criminal justice – a lot of topics are on the table, including the role of the AGs office,” he said.

In his first term, Ellison moved resources without additional funding to have three prosecutors focused on criminal cases.

The small team takes on an average of 12 cases every year – mostly murder cases from rural counties.

His prosecutors handled the case against an Albert Lea man who shot off 80 rounds during a standoff – injuring three people, including a police officer.

Freeborn County asked the AG to take the case. The man was convicted this fall.

“But there’s many, many more cases out there than we have people to do,” he said. “We’ve been in this situation for a few years now.”

“We think it’s important for the attorney general’s office to have enough prosecutors to help county attorneys out because everybody needs help sometime, particularly when you have horrific murder in a very rural county,” he said.

As 5 INVESTIGATES highlighted last year, the AG is also receiving growing demands to take over the prosecution of police officers.

“We can handle that, but I will say that a lot of times, either the governor or the county attorney has to bring us in. We don’t just go in on our own, we’re asked to come in.”