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Staffers detail climate of stress, politicization in AG’s office

By Eric Black | Friday, March 7, 2008 During Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson’s first year in office, more than 50 of the roughly 135 assistant attorneys general have left the office — an unusually high turnover rate.

Attorney General Lori Swanson
Attorney General Lori Swanson

The office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson is riven by fear, politicization, low morale, intimidation tactics and constant turnover, which led to a unionization drive and has now been further aggravated by the management’s reaction to the effort.

During Swanson’s first year in office, more than 50 of the roughly 135 assistant attorneys general have left the office — an unusually high turnover rate. Some were fired or had their jobs eliminated.

The general description of the office environment is based on interviews with 10 current and recently departed staff members, all of whom except two spoke on condition that their names would not be published.

Swanson has so far been unresponsive to requests for an interview for this article. If Swanson decides to respond, MinnPost will report her views.

The present and recently departed attorneys said the stress, turnover and fear are impeding the functioning of the office. They said the office has lost a lot of institutional memory over the departures. Newly hired attorneys miss the guidance of veteran lawyers. And other lawyers, who are worried about getting in trouble with their bosses, cannot do their best work.

Those who still work in the AG’s office said they are convinced they would be fired or face involuntary transfers to undesirable assignments if they were quoted criticizing Swanson or endorsing the union drive, a fear that they said was based on what has happened to others.

Even those who have left the office expressed fear that if they spoke out openly about the situation, Swanson could use the power of her office to retaliate against them, their new employers or their clients. They said it is frighteningly easy for an attorney general to retaliate, for example just by opening an investigation, costing a small company or nonprofit agency thousands of dollars to respond.

Assistant Attorney General Amy 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.

An investigator in the AG’s office also said that she sometimes felt pressured to hastily make a case, apparently for publicity purposes, without proper consideration of whether the suit was really justified.

‘Punishment assignments’
Lawler is one of the two who agreed to have her name used in this article, although she believes she will probably get fired for talking publicly. The office has a policy prohibiting the attorneys from talking to the news media without going through official channels.

Lawler, 27, has openly worked for the union drive. Soon after she allowed her name to appear on an open letter to Swanson about the unionization effort, all of the cases on which she had been working were taken away from her. She has been given other tasks, which she described as “punishment assignments.”

Jody Wahl, 54, worked as an investigator in the office for 24 years under three attorneys general. Her specialty was cases involving charities and nonprofits, and she was highly enough regarded within that specialty that she recently completed a term as president of the National Association of State Charity Officials. She left the AG’s office involuntarily on Jan. 2 of this year when her position was eliminated.

Wahl was active in the union movement during most of 2007. She said she assumes that this was why she was fired.

Like Lawler, Wahl said that she was sometimes pressured to hastily make a case, apparently for publicity purposes, without proper consideration of whether the suit was really justified.

“There’s a lot of pressure to manipulate the evidence to support what Lori Swanson wants done,” Wahl said. “The office of attorney general has such tremendous authority. When it sues somebody, it can ruin their life, ruin their business. It shouldn’t be taken lightly. It should be done after a thorough investigation. And that isn’t done anymore. Shouldn’t we cross the T’s and dot the I’s before we call a press conference and sue someone?”

Wahl was unwilling to talk about specific cases in which she felt pressured for fear it would jeopardize the severance package she received when she was let go.

Wahl, and others who had been in the office for many years, agreed that the tensions of the past year were not new. They said the office environment had been stressful and dysfunctional bordering on paranoid during the previous eight years under Attorney General Mike Hatch. Hatch fired a lot of attorneys, had a famous temper, blew hot and cold on people, and was often criticized within the office for being headline-hungry and using lawsuits and investigations to advance himself politically.

When Hatch sought the governorship in 2006, there was widespread hope among the unhappy employees that a better management might take over. Swanson had been Hatch’s top aide; some referred to the leadership as “Swatch.” When Swanson was elected, there were those who feared that the tensions would continue and others who hoped that Swanson, despite being Hatch’s protégé and alter ego, might set a different tone.

But in the last months of 2006 and January of 2007, Wahl and others concluded that the atmosphere of intimidation and politicization would continue and that the staff could not push back without the protection that a union could provide.

Drive for a union

The organizing drive started in February. In May, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) submitted cards signed by the majority of the attorneys in the office to the federal Bureau of Mediation Services. In most work environments, this would lead to an election on the question of unionization. Other offices employing government lawyers, including the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, are unionized.

But the state Public Employees Labor Relations Act treats attorneys who work under state constitutional officers differently. Although there is some dispute about the legal question, the attorneys in the AG’s office apparently are not entitled to unionize, or cannot do so without the approval of the attorney general. Swanson, who was elected with labor support, rejected the union drive.

The union issue has broken into the mainstream media a few times and more often in the blogosphere. The trade publication Minnesota Lawyer has covered the matter more than any other outlet.

Swanson declined to speak to Minnesota Public Radio for a story that aired this morning about the unionization issues. Her spokesman gave MPR this statement: “The issue of whether confidential attorneys can form a union has been around for 20 years. Attorney General Swanson is focused on doing her job for the people of Minnesota.”

In April, AFSCME Executive Director Eliot Seide, reacting to Swanson’s rejection of the unionization drive, issued this colorful quote from outside of Swanson’s State Capitol Office: “Four words disgust us today, and those four words are ‘AFSCME endorsed Lori Swanson.’ ” Swanson  accused Seide of trying to intimidate her.

Ray Waldron, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, asked all unions to withhold contributions from Swanson’s political campaigns “until this dispute is resolved.” Swanson’s term runs through 2010, so there’s plenty of time, but if labor stays mad at her, it could lead to a serious intraparty challenge that year.

The union organizers created an anonymous blog called AG Organizing Update, in October.

Warning about ‘the wrong people’

In November, Lawler, a Minneapolis native and recent Harvard Law grad, came home from Boston to join the AG’s office. On her first day, her co-workers told her to expect a pro-Swanson lawyer in the office to take her to lunch or coffee and sound her out on her attitude toward unionizing the office, and advised her to say that she was against it.

Sure enough, the coffee occurred and Lawler was noncommittal about her views, but soon came to suspect that her new job was going to be weird.

Lawler said her colleagues told her, “You’ve got to careful who you talk to. Don’t associate with the wrong people.”

She was advised to use the stairs and not the elevator to go to certain floors because the elevator requires a building ID security card and some people were convinced that their movements were monitored via the computerized cards. Lawler doesn’t know if that’s true, but she said it was an example of the strange vibes she was getting about the office.

Lawler, like others who spoke not for attribution, said she was put in situations that made her uncomfortable. For example, when Swanson asked her to find a defendant on a particular consumer-protection issue, Lawler said she was concerned that there might be ethical problems with hastily creating what might be a non-meritorious lawsuit for political reasons. Her boss, a deputy AG, told her not to worry, they would be sure to find a way to shelter the suit from any ethical complaint.

As Lawler absorbed the atmosphere in the office, she got a clear sense that her colleagues “lived with a lot of fear” that if they spoke out about such things, they would face retaliation. Lawler was upset about the firing of Wahl and heard a discussion that convinced her that Wahl had been fired for her pro-union activities. The desire to have some protection against such retaliation was one of the reasons for the union movement. Lawler became active in the union cause.

On Feb. 13, Lawler and two fellow pro-union attorneys, Daniel Goldberg and Susan Damon, broke the usual anonymity and gave Swanson a signed letter, (page one here page two here) asking Swanson to embrace the desire of the majority of the staff to have a union, or as close to a union as possible under PELRA, and to work with the staff at the Legislature to change PELRA so the union arrangement could be normalized.

The letter was also posted on the previously anonymous AG Organizing Update blog.

AG staff surveyed
Swanson responded with two emails to the staff, disputing some things in the public letter and promising to canvass the staff to learn whether they felt the letter-writers represented them. She invited two retired judges to supervise the survey, which led to a strange and chaotic procedure in which ballots were first carried from office to office to give the attorneys a chance to vote on how they felt about the letter. Later in the process, the attorneys voted in groups.

Minnesota Lawyer reported that the result was 52 voting that the letter-writers did not represent them, 30 indicating the opposite, 14 refusing to cooperate and complaining that the survey was coercive and about 30 others not participating. The union organizers did not accept this as a measure of the views of the staff.

Lawler said that soon after that day, she was relieved of all the cases on which she had been working.

“I think at this point the writing’s on the wall that I’m not going to be around much longer,” she said. “They’ll find some way to eliminate my position or something. So I’m looking. But I kinda want to stick it out. Now that I’ve been there long enough to have met the people who used to work in the office, and realized how good the office used to be and how respected we were across the country, I kind of feel like I have some responsibility … to do something.”

Eric Black, a former reporter for the Star Tribune, writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.