The Minnesota State Patrol Chief said, Friday, a thorough investigation into a car accident involving two of the state’s most prominent union leaders, including details about an open alcohol container found in the vehicle.
Redwood County District Attorney investigated and reviewed the case, after which state auditor Julie Blaha was cited for failing to surrender after slowing to a stop in Hwy. 67, County Road 13. A Friday story by Alpha News cited state patrol field reports indicating an open can of White Claw Hard Seltzer, an alcoholic beverage, was found in the car.
The story goes: “An open container of alcohol was found in the car…However, no one has been charged with violating the open container.”
In response to the Alpha News report, the state’s top Republicans said more explanation was needed about the crash.
“Elected officials are always held to a higher standard,” Deputy Senate Majority Leader Karen Hosley said in a written statement.
The coup incident between Blaha and Senate Minority Leader Melissa Lopez Franzen occurred on August 4 after they left Farmfest in Redwood County and headed to a DFL fundraiser.
The Jeep Cherokee that Blah was driving crashed into a semi-trailer and fell upside down into a roadside trench. Neither woman was seriously injured, and the truck driver was not hurt.
According to State Patrol reports sent to the Star Tribune, the White Claw could be on a backpack that belonged to Franzen and was found near the back seat. When a soldier 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 no alcohol.
“This incident has been thoroughly and objectively investigated by the State Patrol, including driving behavior, commercial vehicle inspections, and the details surrounding the White Claw container,” Colonel Matt Langer said in a statement Friday. “The file has been submitted for review by the local attorney general, 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 accident.”
Donald MacFarland, a spokesperson for Blaha’s office, said Franzen had consumed the White Claw earlier in the day and had put the can in her backpack so it could be recycled later. He said she was in the car drinking a can of nonalcoholic fruit juice she had pulled from a cooler.
“There was no open container charge because law enforcement reached that conclusion,” MacFarland said. “I think they did their due diligence.”
In a taped interview with a police officer the day after the accident, Morgan Fire Department assistant chief Justin Blomick said a can of White Claw spilled when he retrieved the backpack. He said the canister must have been pretty full given how much it leaked, and that the canister was “extremely cold” indicating it had recently been opened, according to the soldiers’ interview notes.
When the soldiers arrived at the scene, it became clear to them that the two women had been elected officials. Franzen was wearing an identification badge on her blouse that said she belonged to “MN Senate District 49”.
When one of the soldiers asked where they were going, Franzen said they were coming from Farmfest and headed to an “after party”. She told the officer that she was an elected official and that the driver was the state auditor.
DFL boss Ken Martin, who was also at Farmfest, arrived at the scene in a DFL-branded truck shortly after Franzen called him to report that she and Bella had had an accident, according to Brian Evans, the NFL’s director of communications. Speaking to the soldiers, Martin asked if the women had been abused and offered to help him contact their families because he was friends with them, Evans said.
In an email sent Aug. 4 to one of the soldiers investigating the incident, State Patrol Lt. Matthew Sorenson said the case would be referred to the county attorney for review.
“In your report, you are not recommending accusations at this time, just enter the facts, data and evidence you have,” Sorenson told the soldiers. “We will compile all reports and submit a package to the county attorneys to review and overturn their recommendations for charges.”
In October, supervisors told soldiers investigating the crash via email that Redwood County District Attorney Gina Peterson recommended that the state patrol issue a citation to the “at fault driver” for the accident. Attempts to reach Peterson on Friday were unsuccessful.
Husley said the details left more questions than answers.
“The public deserves better than their leaders and we have many questions left unaddressed since August that are only now emerging,” she said.
The head of the state’s Republican Party, David Hahn, also issued a written statement requesting more information about the incident. “Minnesota residents 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 ended. “There was absolutely no drinking and driving on August 4 and alcohol was not a factor in the accident,” she said.