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'They will come after you'

Second of two articles 

Present and former employees in the attorney general's office express frustration that members of the public don't know all they should about Mike Hatch.
Photo by Terry Gydesen
Present and former employees in the attorney general's office express frustration that members of the public don't know all they should about Mike Hatch.

Mike Hatch has had a successful public career. From humble roots, he became an attorney, chairman of the DFL Party, Minnesota commerce commissioner, a two-term attorney general and a three-time candidate for governor. In 2006, he won the DFL nomination, received more than 1 million votes and came within one percentage point of defeating incumbent Gov. Tim Pawlenty.


On the other hand, Hatch was the only DFLer to lose for statewide office that year. In a close election there are many ways to explain the small gap. Conventional wisdom attributes Hatch's defeat to a last-minute fit of temper in which he called a reporter a "Republican whore," an outburst that is consistent with both the anger and the political paranoia that my sources portray in Hatch.

Hatch has also made many enemies, including many within DFL circles, because of the kind of foul, angry and abusive conduct described in the first part of this series. That cost him the votes of some who vote a straight DFL ticket, and surely contributed to his defeat.

He has been a divisive figure within the party at least since 1990 when he challenged his mentor and former boss, Rudy Perpich, for the DFL gubernatorial nomination. Hatch promised to abide by the endorsement, lost it to Perpich, then ran in a primary anyway (which he also lost).

During his long political career he has often been accused of political sharp practices. In 1994, when he realized he couldn't get the endorsement, he threw his support to state Sen. John Marty against his chief rival for the endorsement, Mike Freeman. A Star Tribune article at the time said Hatch believed Marty would be easier to beat in a primary than Mike Freeman. It worked, as far as knocking off Freeman, who kept his pledge to drop out if he lost the endorsement, but Hatch lost in the primary anyway.

In 2006, after Hatch's protégé Lori Swanson had entered the race for the DFL attorney general nomination, Hatch encouraged former state Rep. Bill Luther to get into the primary field. Luther, who had a previous reputation as a relentless fundraiser and campaigner, entered the race but didn't raise much money and didn't campaign very hard. He received just 21 percent of the vote in the three-candidate field. Most DFLers to whom I talked about it subscribe to the belief that this was another clever but devious Hatch trick. Swanson, who was clearly Hatch's chosen successor, was able to win a close primary over DFL endorsee state Sen. Steve Kelley. The widely accepted theory is that Hatch believed if Swanson was the only woman against two men, she could win. If so, it worked. Swanson was nominated with a 42 percent plurality.

Hatch declined to be interviewed for this story. If he had followed through on his earlier commitment to talk to me, I would have asked him whether those DFLers are correct, and whether he recruited Luther into the race to split the vote and help Swanson. After canceling our interview appointment Wednesday, Hatch sent a written statement, which you can read in full here.

Attorney General Swanson also passed on an interview request. Wednesday, almost two weeks after I first requested an interview and as the first installment in this series was being published, her representative officially informed me that the request was officially declined.

Hatch admirers
Hatch certainly has friends, allies and admirers. (How else, in spite of his critics, could he have handily won both the DFL gubernatorial endorsement and primary in 2006?)

His work ethic is legendary. No one, not even Hatch, denies the temper, but his friends see it as an excess of populist zeal. They believe Hatch has accumulated critics and enemies because he is a tough fighter.

As AG, they say, he was more aggressive and courageous in taking on big, Minnesota-based corporate players, including Northwest Airlines, the big Minnesota-based HMOs and the local banking/financial/insurance industries. His battles with health care companies provided the biggest headlines of his AG tenure, and brought about his most noteworthy victories, as well as a spectacular defeat.

Because so many of the sources I interviewed for this series have developed a dim view of Hatch's tenure as attorney general, I sought out someone who had a lot of dealings with Hatch and was an admirer. I was referred to Jim Bernstein, a former Minnesota commerce commissioner.

He said Hatch had been an outstanding AG and he maintained "nothing but the highest admiration" for him. (In the interest of full disclosure, Bernstein pointed out that he has a contract with the attorney general's office.)

Yes, Hatch is a bulldog, who has high expectations of those who work for him and who can lose his temper, Bernstein said, "but the one thing you could count on is that Mike's heart and Mike's head are on the side of consumers in Minnesota."

Hatch's anonymous critics
As I interviewed more than two-dozen sources, drawing most heavily from present and former assistant and deputy attorneys general under Hatch and Swanson, they expressed gratitude that I am doing this story.

They affirmed the hypothesis that formed the essence of the first installment of this series. They express frustration that members of the public don't know all they should about Hatch. But they took my calls with great fear and offered to tell their stories and give their conclusions only if their names would not be used. They all gave the same reason for seeking anonymity.

They believe that Hatch could and would hurt them for publicly criticizing him. Some spoke emotionally about waves of fear they experienced just during the interviews.

When I asked one source with long experience in the office why he wouldn't speak on the record about his experiences, he said: "These are very vindictive people. They will come after you. They'll try to get you fired or make your life miserable somehow."

Another source, who worked under Hatch as well as Hatch's predecessor, Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III, put it more bluntly: "Mike Hatch is the last person in the world whose shit list I want to be on. Even when he's out of office, just his presence on the planet. He's a very nasty person. I don't have enough interest in the truth being known to risk anything professionally."

Many of those I interviewed, including both of those just quoted, have moved on from the AG's office to important positions in Minnesota law, business and politics. Hatch holds no government office and his protégé, Swanson, can't fire or demote those who don't work for her.

Lawyers say there is a climate of fear in Attorney General Lori Swanson's office.
Photo by Terry Gydesen
Lawyers say there is a climate of fear in Attorney General Lori Swanson's office.

The office of attorney general carries with it enormous discretion to mete out benefits and pain. On the plus side, for example, the attorney general can appoint private lawyers to represent state interests. This includes not only the lucrative state bond work that was referred to in the first installment, but also appointments to handle big cases for the state, including one in the news worth more than $100 million to the Minneapolis law firm of Heins Mills & Olson.

On behalf of the Minnesota State Board of Investment in 2002, Hatch appointed Heins Mills to represent the state's interest in a class action against AOL Time Warner. Sam Heins, head of that firm, ended up parlaying his position as Minnesota's lawyer into an appointment as the chief lawyer for an entire national class of plaintiffs. After settling the case in 2005 for $2.65 billion, the firm received a $103 million fee. Heins and his wife, Stacey Mills, personally received a combined $80 million of it. (The recent coverage is about an ongoing argument over how the total fee was divided among the Heins Mills lawyers who worked on the case). Heins is an active DFLer and financial supporter of Hatch's campaigns. In 2006, the year after the class action settlement, Heinz gave $75,000 to Minnesotans for Change, (PDF) a pro-Hatch independent committee that was created to help Hatch become governor and bash his Republican opponent, Tim Pawlenty. Heinz was one of seven donors who gave at least $50,000 to the committee.

On the other hand, the attorney general has near-total discretionary power to prosecute, sue or investigate people, companies and organizations.

Many of those who have left the AG's office express a clear concern that Hatch and Swanson (most of these sources believe that Hatch still has enormous influence over Swanson) will sue or investigate their company or organization, even retaliate against the clients of their law firm, in order to punish them.

They speak as if Hatch (and Swanson) is the kind of junkyard brawler who will do whatever is necessary to make them pay. They speak as if the circles of their acquaintance are littered with the ruined lives of those who crossed Mike Hatch.

So I've been pushing them: Tell me the names of those whose lives or careers were destroyed so I can confirm the details. They give me names and tell me stories and I will follow up.

But the actual damage done to the targets of Hatch's wrath seems minor compared to the level of the fear. Many who left the AG's office unhappy and bitter have gone on to bigger and better jobs and lives. In the most famous cases in which threats of retaliation were made, the threats were not fulfilled. There is a serious disconnect between the facts and the fear.

There are specific examples of retribution, including some recent ones. But they are not the kind of life-destroying damage that would match the fear. Assistant Attorney General Amy Lawler, a young newcomer to the office, publicly squawked that she had been penalized for her pro-union stand and told MinnPost and MPR that Swanson had pressured her to commit what she considered ethically questionable acts. She was quickly suspended with pay. On Tuesday, an inquiry (PDF) commissioned by Swanson and conducted by the law school dean of St. Thomas University concluded that Lawler's bosses had not committed ethical violations but Lawler may have by taking her case public. Lawler's suspension was immediately turned into a dismissal. Lawler has not returned calls for comment.

State Rep. Steve Simon of St. Louis Park, an alumnus of the AG's office who spoke in support of asking the legislative auditor to investigate a series of ethical complaints that became public because of the Lawler controversy, found himself the subject of an email to all of his colleagues in the DFL caucus.

The email, written by state Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, implied that Simon had something to hide from his days in the office. Hilstrom disclosed in the email that she worked under Hatch in his current law firm.

Simon has described the email as an effort at "character assassination," but doesn't claim to have suffered any great damage from the incident. In the instance referenced in the first installment of this series involving Marianne Short and the Dorsey firm, Hatch apparently didn't take any business away from the firm, Short won her lawsuit against Hatch, and she is now the managing partner of Dorsey.

One veteran who left early in Swanson's tenure because of what she called the "dysfunctional" office environment now works for a small nonprofit organization. She was approached by a reporter soon after her departure and was considering talking about her experiences in the office. She checked with her boss, who didn't tell her what to do but asked her to consider how easily their small agency could be paralyzed by any retaliation, even if it was only the filing of a Civil Investigative Demand.

In many instances, the belief of my sources is that Hatch may find a way to damage the reputations of those who cross him. One source told of a day when he arrived at Hatch's office for a meeting and found the boss on the phone. Hatch gestured for the subordinate to have a seat while he finished a conversation with a partner of a big law firm that had just hired away one of Hatch's attorneys. As the source recalls Hatch's side of the conversation, in the guise of thanking the partner, it went like this:

"I am just so glad your firm hired him because you took that piece of shit load off my hands. I was going to have to fire him for being an incompetent dolt. But since you hired him, that saved me from having to put a bullet in the guy, 'cuz he was a disaster. Just wanted to say thanks for that."

The source said Hatch hung up, laughed, and said: " 'Did that asshole think he could leave me with no retribution?' That guy probably doesn't even know he got tagged."

One of my sources, who also testified to Legislative Auditor James Nobles about his experiences in the office, said that even Nobles encouraged him to think hard about whether he wanted his identity to be disclosed in the auditor's report that will soon be published.

On the record
Amy Brendmoen is willing to go on the record. Brendmoen, who is not an attorney, worked her way up in the AG's office from the phone room back in the Humphrey administration, to work as a mediator, then an investigator and finally, during the 2006 campaign when Hatch's long-time spokester went to work on his campaign, Brendmoen filled in as spokester for the AG's office.

Although her 11-year career in the office ended badly, she speaks fondly of Hatch, with more sadness than anger over the way their relationship ended. She's grateful for the many opportunities Hatch gave her. She always got along with him. He never yelled at her, although she did witness one of Hatch's screaming, cursing, table-pounding tantrums, and was mostly puzzled by it. "The banging and red-faced crap was all pretty unnecessary," she said. "We were all on the same side" on the matter under discussion and everyone was doing the best work they could. She didn't believe that such displays were the best way to motivate the troops.

She was often puzzled by the Hatch team's insistence on the "lazy staff" explanation for the problems of the office. The people who worked in the office were "hardworking, bright, committed and they were treated as if they were just the opposite," Brendmoen said.

After Swanson's election, Hatch informed Brendmoen that she wouldn't be kept on either as spokeswoman or be offered her old investigator's job back. He offered her a demotion with a 25 percent pay cut. She assumes she was supposed to quit over that, but when she indicated she would think about it (because the mother of three couldn't afford to be unemployed), Hatch told her she really needed to leave.

Brendmoen did leave, but has remained close to those on the AG staff attempting to form a union, and believes that as a result, she was subjected to a Hatch/Swanson retaliation. She bases that belief on two phone calls to her new office.

The first call was to her, at work, from a young man claiming to work for Lois Quam, wife of Hatch's political foe, Matt Entenza. The caller asked Brendmoen to write a post for "the family" on a blog that the union organizers have created. Brendmoen took that call to be an effort to trick her into confirming Hatch's and Swanson's theory that Entenza is behind the union movement. (As far as Brendmoen knows, Entenza and Quam have nothing to do with it, and the answers she gave to the caller would not have confirmed the suspicion.)

The next call was a message left for her new boss. The message, claiming to be "on behalf of Matt and Lois," thanked her boss for allowing Brendmoen to spend company time helping her former colleagues with their union drive. This one, she assumes, was designed to undermine her in her new job. She can't say for sure that Hatch and Swanson were behind the calls, but she found them "threatening and unsettling, but also immature and unbecoming."

She said she decided to put her name on her account to show solidarity with Lawler and because she was frustrated that others were not coming forward publicly to back up Lawler's account.

On Wednesday, after the first installment of this series had been published, I got a call from another former official of the office who was willing to speak for attribution.

Bob Stanich of Minneapolis was an assistant attorney general for 19 years, spanning the Humphrey and early Hatch years. He worked mostly in the area of criminal appeals — his passion and his expertise.

The two big differences between the two administrations was the "climate of fear" that Hatch brought to the office and the increased level of politicization. "It was just black and white," Stanich said of the difference.

Hatch was the kind of boss who wanted things done a certain way, but didn't want to tell you what it was, Stanich said. "You were supposed to guess," he said, and if you guessed wrong, it could easily blow up in your face. That management style makes everyone jumpy.

He told of being summoned to Hatch's Capitol office once for a red-faced screaming, cursing Hatch tirade in which a stream of insults were directed at him. After the meeting, talking to one of the Hatch's top deputies (who had also been present), Stanich said he guessed he had better start looking for a job elsewhere. The deputy said not necessarily, that Hatch blew up that way often and the deputies were used to it, but it didn't always lead to anyone getting fired.

Then in 2002, Stanich, who had risen to head of the criminal appeals team, was summarily transferred to the Health Licensing Division, "which I knew nothing about." He was never given a reason for the transfer. But he did take it as a sign to move on and he found a job with the Minnesota Supreme Court, from which he recently retired. He's willing to speak on the record now, because he had a bellyful, and because he doesn't see what Hatch can do to him at this stage of life.

But he also told me about a conversation he had with another ex-colleague from the AG's office. He asked her whether she might be willing to talk on the record to a reporter about her experiences under Hatch. "Are you crazy?" the woman replied. "Not even off the record." 

One last anecdote
This parting anecdote comes from a former department head in the AG's office who was involuntarily transferred out of his supervisory position in late 2006. He was told it was because he wasn't working his staff hard enough. But the woman who took his place told him that she had been sent in to "manage [a particular employee] out of the office." The woman said she was chosen because she had some experience at getting people to leave whom Hatch and Swanson couldn't easily threaten with dismissal.

This particular employee fit that category because he is a former policeman who lost one of his legs, at the knee, in the line of duty. Because of his disability, he has special protection from arbitrary dismissal.

The former cop's injury had been acting up and he had missed a lot of work, although his absences had been approved under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. The leaves were unpaid. When the ex-cop was able to work, the quality of his work was excellent. My source concluded that the bosses were concerned that the absences could create an embarrassment for the office.

He was outraged. Scheming to get rid of a disabled person violates civil rights law, he said, "and bear in mind, this office is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws."

My source told the ex-cop what was going on. The situation created a stir in the office. Instead of being "managed out," the ex-cop got a raise. But he subsequently left because, according to my source, he didn't want to work for people who wanted to get rid of him. He has filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the issue. That complaint is pending.

My source also left the office in 2007, although he didn't have a job lined up at the time (he has since found one). Although he had been in the office for some years and shared the general view of the leadership expressed by others in this article, the incident with the ex-cop pushed him over the top. "I just felt that these people are unethical and I don't want to work for them anymore."

As I did in many of the latter interviews for this piece, I asked that source to comment on what has become my general hypothesis: that the latest departures and other agonies of the office were the latest manifestation of traumas that go back to the beginning of the Hatch era.

Yes, he said, this is about a long-standing pattern of how attorneys have been treated during the Hatch-Swanson era, but not just about being mean and yelling at them. He said he told the legislative auditor, under oath, that the ultimate issue was:

"This is not about Lori Swanson's management style. These things are all about a deeper problem. ... First, they've developed a culture of dishonesty. By 'they,' I mean Swanson and Hatch. Number two, they fairly routinely ask subordinates to do unethical and even unlawful things. Number three, they tell them to do these things without any regard for the impact on the attorney or the state. Finally, every decision appears to be made based on political considerations."

Eric Black writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.


Part one: An explanation for recent agonies in attorney general's office: Mike Hatch's traumatic reign
By Eric Black
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Statement issued by Mike Hatch to MinnPost
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Report to Attorney General Lori Swanson (PDF)
Regarding Allegations of Professional Misconduct raised by Assistant Attorney General Amy Lawler
Submitted by Thomas M. Mengler
May 27, 2008

Union's response to Amy Lawler's termination
By AFSCME Minnesota Council 5 Executive Director Eliot Seide

Lawmaker's motives questioned in AG inquiry
By G.R. Anderson Jr.
Friday, April 4, 2008

Swanson probe leads to DFL sniping in the House
By G.R. Anderson Jr.
Friday, April 4, 2008

Even without commission action, legislative auditor will launch preliminary AG inquiry
By G.R. Anderson Jr.
Friday, March 28, 2008

Legislative commission will consider probe of Swanson's office
By Eric Black
Thursday, March 27, 2008

More lawyers describe pressure by Swanson to commit what they viewed as unethical conduct
By Eric Black
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Swanson investigation that never was
By G.R. Anderson Jr.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What's Swanson's response to reports of office disarray?
By Eric Black
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Lawyer who spoke out about AG's office put on leave
By Eric Black
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Staffers detail climate of stress, politicization in AG's office
By Eric Black
Friday, March 7, 2008

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