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What’s in Nobles’ report — and what’s not

Legislative Auditor James Nobles concluded a preliminary investigation into allegations of impropriety in the Minnesota attorney general’s office and, in a letter released this morning to the Legislative Audit Commission, did not a find a basis for a full investigation.

Nobles does suggest that the Legislature consider whether state laws should be changed to give the lawyers and investigators in the AG’s office more job protection.

The report, which is brief and lacking in details, will be a relief to Attorney General Lori Swanson and her predecessor, Mike Hatch, whose tenure was also implicated in the allegations Nobles investigated.

And it will be a big disappointment to the present and former attorneys in the office who have been trying to call attention to what they characterize as an intimidating, coercive, overly politicized management style in which attorneys are pressured toward inappropriate conduct and fear retaliation if they don’t comply.

Nobles interviewed, under subpoena and under oath, seven of the present and former assistant attorneys general whose experiences gave rise to the investigation. Nobles says that although the attorneys felt pressured to commit inappropriate acts, the acts were not committed because they resisted the pressure. And although the employees felt that their subsequent demotion or reassignment was retaliation for their resistance to the pressure, they could not prove the connection.

The witnesses did confirm, under oath, that the incidents described in previous MinnPost reports had occurred. Nobles concluded that even so, they did not provide a basis for a full investigation.

No names
He did not interview Swanson or Hatch. None of the names of the witnesses nor details of any of the incidents are in the report. He described, generally, alleged pressure on attorneys to:

“(1) sign and issue a civil investigative demand without sufficient merit; (2) insert unsubstantiated information in an affidavit; (3) give advice that was not in the best interest of a client; (4) find defendants to help the Attorney General’s Office bring certain types of lawsuits; and (5) post comments favorable to the office and Attorney General Swanson on an internet blog and record the time used for blogging as annual leave even though state time was used.”

Nobles wrote that at the meeting of the Legislative Audit Commission that gave rise to his investigation, several legislators expressed concern about second-guessing the management style of an independently elected constitutional officer, like the attorney general.

In describing his interviews with the witnesses, Nobles confirmed several of the main themes of the recent MinnPost series about the turmoil in the AG’s office. The witnesses said that the problems were not recent or limited to the Swanson era but traced back to the Hatch era. They described the office, under Hatch and Swanson both, as “focused on obtaining favorable media attention rather than the methodical legal work required to successfully litigate cases. Several of the individuals we interviewed pointed to cases they thought had merit that were dropped in favor of new cases that would draw media attention.”

They also said, as they had said in the MinnPost series, that Swanson’s decision in early 2007 to bring her mentor, Hatch, back into the office as her deputy, was the “tipping point” that led some of them to resign, some to seek public exposure of the problems in the office, and others to try to form a union.

I have contacted Swanson and Hatch’s offices for reaction to the report but have not heard back.

Nobles was specifically told by some of the legislators on the Audit Commission not to get involved in the unionization fight. But he did come close to that issue at the end of his report by suggesting that the Legislature consider the “at will” status of assistant attorneys general.

Under state law, attorneys and investigators of the AG’s office can be fired at will, for almost any reason or no stated reason, by the attorney general. Attorneys in other government agencies can and have unionized, but those in the AG’s office cannot, nor do they have civil service protection.

No recommendation
Swanson and Hatch have opposed any change that would allow the attorneys to unionize, saying it would impede the functioning of the office. Nobles suggested that the Legislature consider the issue, but made no recommendation of what they should do about it.

Reporting on this issue has been especially difficult because so many of the present and former officials of the office have been unwilling to speak on the record for fear of retaliation. The Nobles report induced one more former assistant attorney general to speak on the record.

Stephanie Morgan worked in the office from 2000-2007, and was active in the unionization drive. She left the office last year, in part, because of the dysfunctional office environment.

Speaking for the group of Swanson-Hatch critics, she said the Nobles report was “disappointing” but “not all bad.”

The group had hoped for a full investigation of the office, which, she said, is “in desperate need of some sunlight. We were hoping that this report would do that.”

On the other hand, Morgan said, “this report substantiates all of the reasons that we sought union protection,” which is that the attorneys could better represent the citizens of Minnesota if they didn’t have to worry about being fired or demoted for arbitrary or political reasons.

Morgan said she and the rest of the group were happy to see Nobles’ recommendation that the Legislature consider the “at-will status” question. Morgan said she had decided to step into the sunlight herself and speak for attribution out of solidarity with Amy Lawler, the former assistant attorney general who was recently fired after going public with her criticisms of the office.

“What she did was pretty gutsy,” Morgan said, “and she’s been left hanging out to dry.”

Lawler, on the advice of her own attorney, has stopped giving interviews. University of St. Thomas Law School Dean Thomas Mengler, who was chosen by Swanson to do an internal review of the Lawler case, concluded in a report last week that Lawler had violated an ethical rule by going public with her concerns in a way that “knowingly revealed information relating to the representation of a client.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by cl johns on 06/03/2008 - 03:12 pm.

    Legislative Auditor Nobles must think Minnesota taxpayers are nothing but stupid fools. In April, the Legislative Auditor’s Office was provided with hundreds of pages of documentation clearly substantiating Ms. Lawler’s allegations of a wrongful “process” by which Assistant Attorneys General could institute frivolous legal actions, wholly without merit, against innocent victims and cover up the unlawful conduct so that knowingly-meritless lawsuits would “stand up to scrutiny.”

    Because of concern the Legislative Auditor had no intention of conducting a legitimate “good faith” investigation into the allegations of wrongdoing within the Attorney General’s Office, these same documents were also provided on May 8, 2008, to Senator Dennis Frederickson, and to Representatives Tom Emmer, Bruce Anderson, Brad Finstad, Dan Severson, and Steve Simon.

    Eric, You contacted me toward the end of last year while I was in Florida to discuss an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into allegations of public corruption within the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office. You ask that I contact you if I heard any more from the Department of Justice. For your information, on April 8, 2008, I received another letter from the Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility requesting further documentation. Since the public corruption also includes allegations the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office fabricated phony lawsuits against innocent small business owners, the same documents, sent to the Legislative Auditor’s Office, have also been forwarded to the Department of Justice.

    Eric, Keep up the good work. You have done an extraordinarily fine job investigating and reporting on the Attorney General matter. However, there is much more to this story. As both a victim and an advocate for other victims of the wrongdoing by the Attorney General’s Office, the whole truth is yet to be told. May you be the one to tell it. Good luck.

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