Two of Minnesota’s most influential Democrats were driving to a fundraising event when they were involved in a rollover crash last summer. An open alcohol container was found in the vehicle, according to documents obtained by Alpha News, yet nobody was charged with an open-container violation.
Minnesota State Auditor Julie Blaha and Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen collided with a semi-truck as they drove from Farmfest to an afterparty fundraising event on Aug. 4 last year. Their vehicle rolled off the road in Three Lakes Township, but nobody was seriously injured. Blaha was driving and was not found to have any alcohol in her system after the accident. Franzen, however, said she had been drinking White Claws earlier that day.
As first responders strapped her to an immobilization board, Franzen called Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin to the scene. He was apparently in the area for Farmfest. He showed up in a fully-branded party van and was later described by one of the first responders as “the point of contact here.” A dash-cam video of the incident, which includes body-camera audio, shows that Martin spoke with officers on site, ensuring that they knew who they were dealing with.
“I know you know this, but these are two elected officials,” he told one trooper, who relayed the message to the other responding officers.
That trooper also spoke briefly with another first responder who said he found “an open alcohol container in there” that “poured out” as he retrieved something from the vehicle.
‘The can was very cold’
The responder who found the alcohol was Morgan Fire Department Assistant Chief Justin Blomeke. A Minnesota State Patrol field report details how he reached into the car and retrieved an open can of White Claw that he accidentally “spilled all over the backpack and himself.”
“Blomeke guessed that the contents of the can [were] pretty full due to how much spilled out,” the report says. He also stated that “the can was very cold, indicating it was opened very recently.” Finally, he noted that “the backpack was zipped up, indicating the White Claw container was not inside the backpack.”
He later reaffirmed these observations in a recorded phone call with a state trooper, saying the can was open, still cold and mostly full.
“If it was my guess I would say it had been opened when they were driving out of the parking lot and maybe had a drink or two out of it,” he told Trooper Matthew Gleisner, who noted that his partner said “the can itself was cold” at the scene of the crash.
This final detail is important because the State Patrol’s Lt. Matthew Sorenson stated in an email at 9:31 p.m. on the day of the crash that “an open alcohol container was discovered in vehicle #1 after the crash,” but “it appeared to be empty and sounds like it was supposed to be thrown away but forgotten in a backpack pocket.”
This conclusion seems to be based on a statement Franzen gave to police. She said she had been drinking White Claws at Farmfest and that she “just takes all her trash with her,” per the police report.
She also claimed that the White Claw was “attached to her backpack” and she “had [forgotten] about it,” according to the report.
Blaha’s office told Alpha News that police also located a can of non-alcoholic fruit juice at the scene and had a brief discussion about whether or not it was alcoholic, which can be seen in the dash-cam video.
“That’s what the officers were referring to when they said there was an open can and it’s cold,” said Donald McFarland, director of communications for Blaha’s office.
“When authorities were retrieving a bag, they did find an empty can of White Claw in the backseat that Sen. Franzen had drunk at Farmfest and had put it in the bag because she was going to recycle it. So there was a can of White Claw in the car. That’s how it got there. Nobody was drinking it since earlier,” he added.
However, in both their field reports and in conversations at the scene, first responders explicitly described the White Claw as “open,” “cold,” and “pretty full.”
“The firefighter said contents of the White Claw came out when he was retrieving the bag and it was still cold. I looked at the black bag and it appeared a small amount of the White Claw had come out of the can onto the bag. The White Claw can was cold to the touch,” Trooper Daniel Walker wrote in his report.
Blomeke made it clear that the can he discovered while retrieving Franzen’s backpack was a White Claw.
“I reached in the backseat to grab her backpack that she wants and an open White Claw container came with it and dumped out,” Blomeke told another trooper. “It was cold.”
About 30 minutes after arriving at the scene, Sgt. Sabrina Skold called Lt. Sorenson to inform him of the crash. Sorenson helps oversee a 13-county area known as State Patrol District 2300.
“Just to give you a heads up: it’s involving the state auditor and Minnesota Sen. Melisa Franzen, District 49,” she said. “They’re both elected officials.”
Sorenson then contacted Major Joseph Dwyer, who then emailed the highest-ranking officials in the State Patrol barely an hour after the crash.
“The occupants of the passenger car were State Auditor Julie Blaha and State Senator Melisa Franzen,” Dwyer said in his email, which was sent to Col. Matt Langer and his central command team.
That evening, Sorenson also directed a trooper creating an incident report to not recommend charges based on what they encountered at the scene. “Do not recommend charges at this time,” he ordered. “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.”
“We want to make sure we cover our basis [sic] since this is a high-profile case,” he wrote in a third email sent during the same time period.
Blaha was only cited for a minor traffic violation that caused the accident. The citation issued in relation to the accident does not contain an open-container violation and Blaha’s public record shows she has never been convicted of such an offense. However, Minnesota law dictates that “the owner of a vehicle is legally responsible for any open containers of alcohol within the vehicle, even if the owner has not been drinking,” per Minneapolis DWI attorney Gerald Miller.
State Patrol Sgt. Troy Christianson has offered this same explanation of Minnesota’s open-container laws.
“The driver of a motor vehicle can be cited for allowing an open bottle, even if they are not in possession themselves,” he wrote in a September 2021 article. Coincidentally, he is listed as the contact on the public incident report from the crash.
Franzen’s status as a rising star in the party propelled her to the top of the Senate DFL caucus, replacing Sen. Susan Kent as minority leader last October. So it sent shockwaves through the party when Franzen announced in February that she wouldn’t be running for reelection because of an intraparty redistricting battle.
Blaha, however, is seeking a second term as state auditor in November.
Alpha News also reached out to Franzen and the Minnesota DFL for comment but did not receive a response.
Pafoua Yang contributed to this report.