Lawyer who spoke out about AG’s office put on leave

Amy Lawler, the assistant attorney general quoted in a MinnPost story Friday about upheaval, fear and retribution in Minnesota Attorney General’s Office (AGO), was placed on administrative leave Monday night, in apparent retribution for speaking to MinnPost.

A letter informing Lawler of the change in her status was hand-delivered to Lawler’s Minneapolis home about 9 p.m. last night.

The letter specified that the action was taken after Lawler was quoted in MinnPost saying that she had ethical concerns about being ordered by Attorney General Lori Swanson to find a defendant and file a lawsuit on a particular issue within a week. She had, at that point, no evidence of specific wrongdoing by a particular party on which to base a legal action. 

The letter, signed by Deputy Attorney General Karen Olson, said that if Lawler had ethical concerns, she should have taken them up with the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board (which deals with matters of legal ethics), not with the media. Olson is Lawler’s direct supervisor in the AGO’s Complex Litigation Division.

In her interview with MinnPost, Lawler had said she expected to be fired for speaking to the media, not just about her ethical concerns but about the dysfunctional environment of the AGO, and for her open support for an effort to the unionize the office’s roughly 135 staff attorneys. Before Lawler spoke to the news media, she had already been relieved of all the cases on which she had been working, an action she attributed to her public support for the union drive.

Lawler, 27, a recent Harvard Law School grad, has worked for the AGO since only November. In the piece posted Friday morning on MinnPost, Lawler said she had found the environment of the office strange, highly politicized and fearful. She said many of the attorneys felt political pressure to help Swanson get favorable publicity.

She, and other present and former staff members, said they feared that if they pushed back against such pressure they would face retaliation from Swanson, ranging from a general fall from favor, to demotion, unwanted transfer and up to dismissal.

Lawler and others who favor the union drive emphasized that they were mostly motivated not by a desire for improvements in pay and benefits, but for a contract that would protect them from that kind of retaliation. Under state law, attorneys who work for a state constitutional officer such as the attorney general are “at-will” employees, who can be fired without warning and without cause.

In the one year since Swanson became attorney general, more than 50 of the 135 lawyers have resigned or been forced out.

The letter did not specify the duration of the leave, nor whether Lawler would be paid during it. Lawler said the employees’ handbook referenced only to paid administrative leaves, after “an employee has been involved in a critical incident.” Such leaves start at 30 days and can be extended to 60 days by the agency and potentially longer by the state.

Here’s the excerpt from Friday’s MinnPost article that was cited in the letter:

“…Lawler said she has been put in situations that made her uncomfortable where she had to weigh her own ethical standards against pressure to help Swanson get favorable media coverage and portray herself as the friend of the downtrodden.

“For example, soon after she joined the office in November, Lawler recalls, she was called to a meeting and told by Swanson she wanted a case to get the AG’s office into a particular consumer-protection issue that had been in the news. Lawler — who said she couldn’t disclose the precise issue for ethical reasons — said Swanson told her to find someone to sue, draft a complaint and file suit within a week. Lawler considered that an ethically questionable way to begin a lawsuit.”

And here’s how the letter to Lawler described the grounds for her being placed on leave:

 “Last week…, you contacted MinnPost and restated your allegation about the ethics of this Office as it relates to the filing of these…lawsuits.  I am sure you are aware of your responsibilities under the Rules of Professional Conduct. One of those rules requires that, if you believe there has been an ethics violation as it relates to the filing of these cases, you report the alleged violation to the Minnesota Board of Professional Responsibility.  You have not done so.

“You are hereby placed on administrative leave.  I expect you to send me a letter by the end of the week itemizing in detail your allegations of ethical concerns regarding the filing of these cases. If you believe the professional rules of ethics have been violated as it relates to the filing of these cases, you should also share your concerns with the Board of Professional Responsibility.”

Lawler said last night that when she was told to find a defendant and file a suit within a week, she questioned whether it was ethical to issue a deadline for the filing of a lawsuit without knowing the facts or the parties in the case. Her boss, Olson, told her not to worry, they would find a way to shelter the suit from any ethical complaint.

In her interview with MinnPost, Lawler withheld the subject of the lawsuit, for ethical reasons.

After researching the matter, Lawler said last night, she found that she could ethically justify filing a complaint in the case, which is why she didn’t pursue the matter with the board of professional responsibility.

MinnPost is seeking response from Swanson and will post it.

Eric Black writes about Minnesota government and politics and foreign and national affairs. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/11/2008 - 09:41 am.

    Eric, do you know why Ms Lawler didn’t go through proper channels with this? Does she not trust the Board to handle it responsibly?

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/11/2008 - 11:40 am.

    Lawler obviously has more than one possible motivation; it would take a better mind reader than I to sort them out.

    The real problem (and it’s bipartisan) is the politicization of law enforcement on all governmental levels.
    We’ve seen this in the instance of Federal prosecutors (and the actions of the Attorney General in general), and now on the level of the state Attorney General.

    These offices should certainly not be elected, and should have some of the same political isolation as court appointments.

  3. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 03/11/2008 - 04:19 pm.

    This isn’t an issue of partisanship, because Swanson is alienating her own party. If her election were this year, she would have a tough time winning either union endorsements or the DFL endorsement. When the DFL decided to make a late pre-primary endorsement in 2006, it endorsed Steve Kelley. Looks like it was right.

  4. Submitted by TJ Pavey on 03/11/2008 - 05:49 pm.

    This is most certainly not partisanship issue. As Eric above points out she is alienating her own party. Also, appointed positions are certainly not free from partisanship since many are appointed by elected officials. At the very least elected people tend to try to appease the people that elected them. Appointed officials need only to appeal to the party that put them there in the first place.

    In regards to the article, I find it appalling that our AGO opperates with the ‘shoot first ask questions later’ mentality. In today’s environment with lawyers and lawsuits in the crosshairs of everyone, this only highlights any problem with the system as it is. The legal system needs to be there to protect people–holding large corps accountable–when needed. Abusing it this way just trivializes it, making it the ire of citizens in this country.

    I applaud Amy Lawler for speaking up and hope that positive changes occur in the AGO because of this spotlight.

  5. Submitted by Nicklos Nicklos on 03/11/2008 - 06:09 pm.

    Nothing too political here– I am just in total admiration of Lawler. It is a huge deal for her to stand up and speak out like this. As a young woman myself, I am extremely encouraged and totally envious of her strength to take on the AG. Lawler, if you read this, kudos. Even if you didn’t go through the “proper channels,” thanks for trusting MinnPost with your story.

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