Even without commission action, legislative auditor will launch preliminary AG inquiry

Steve Simon, a DFL state representative from St. Louis Park, hustled into Room 112 at the Capitol this morning armed with a can of Dr Pepper and a stack of paperwork. Simon and 10 other legislators were fulfilling their regular duties on the bipartisan Legislative Audit Commission. But the agenda featured an unusual item: whether to investigate Attorney General Lori Swanson’s office.

Swanson has come under fire lately, most notably for the roughly 50 assistant attorneys general who have quit or been fired since Swanson took office last year. Rumors and allegations of an atmosphere of intimidation, coercion and retribution under the attorney general have plagued the office for nearly a year.

Until today, calls for an inquiry into the office under Swanson’s stewardship have gone unheeded, but now it appears Swanson, the highest DFL official in state government, will be investigated.

Simon took a deep breath and thoughtfully explained why he thought the commission might call for an inquiry by the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor, headed by Jim Nobles. “This is a difficult issue for me,” Simon said, recounting that Swanson “was three doors down from me” when he worked in the attorney general’s office from 1996 to 2001. “The stakes are very high here. … The allegations and denials, if true, are very unsettling.”

Simon did officially make a somewhat vague motion to authorize Nobles to begin an inquiry into the AG’s office.

Simon ultimately withdrew his motion, but only after he was assured by Nobles that the legislative auditor could open an investigation anyway under state statute. Nobles said, in fact, that he would begin a preliminary inquiry.

In a statement released after the commission meeting, Swanson said that she believes “an independent review will create a fair process based on facts, not union attacks, and we welcome and look forward to such a process.

“I take great pride in the legal reputation of this office. My team and I work very hard for the people of Minnesota, and we thoroughly research and investigate all cases and legal work,” she said. “It is easy in today’s world for anonymous people to throw mud and hope it sticks.”

For an hour and a half, members of the commission offered misgivings about launching an investigation into the office, took great pains to keep politics out of the conversation, and quizzed Nobles on whether there was sufficient reason to send him to check out Swanson’s business.

“Seems to me this has been an internal employment issue,” Sen. Don Betzold, a DFLer from Fridley, said in a typically conflicted comment. “I don’t want to tell a constitutional officer how to run his or her shop any more than I want them telling me how to run my shop.”

But Simon argued there was a bigger picture. “The attorney general is the people’s lawyer,” Simon said. “I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. It ought not to matter.”

Clearing the air
In truth, some lawmakers, most notably Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, have been calling for an inquiry of the alleged work condition issues as far back as last May.

But that notion got stuck in the House Rules Committee after House counsel advised members not to pursue it. Swanson has initiated some reviews herself — most notably from Thomas Mengler, the dean of the University of St. Thomas law school and the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility.

But, Simon said, a more independent investigation is needed: “The idea we would let someone accused of wrongdoing run an investigation … is insufficient.” Simon also noted that the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, in a twist, was actually investigating whether one lawyer in the office, Amy Lawler, had violated any confidentiality obligations. Lawler recently was suspended from her job after speaking to MinnPost and Minnesota Public Radio about her concerns about office operations. The attorney general’s office said the suspension was for not following review procedures.

Still, some members of the commission were not swayed. “What will the question be: ‘Is there anything wrong in this office?’ ” asked Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, noting such an inquiry would invite employees to “air their gripes. … That’s not political, but that’s the kind of fishing expedition that is not fair.”

Two Republicans, Sen. David Hann and Rep. Michael Beard, expressed similar misgivings.

One main issue in the Swanson controversy is the recent effort to unionize the attorney general’s office. Simon repeatedly emphasized that any investigation should steer well clear of union shenanigans and retribution, though he and others noted that a movement to unionize could indicate turmoil in a workplace.

Nobles, for his part, assured members that his investigation would focus solely on allegations of misuse of the office, including allegedly falsified affidavits and timesheets, pressuring attorneys to give bad advice to clients and asking employees to post positive comments on a blog devoted to recounting the atmosphere in the office. Nobles, who is known for his objectivity and thoroughness, said he could very well find nothing to the allegations, but that an inquiry could be helpful to “clear the air.”

“I understand you’re anxious,” Nobles told the commission. “It is not my intention to have a broad-ranging fishing expedition” and that he would exclude “labor issues, personality issues and management issues” from his investigation. He did, however, say that he could and would use subpoena power if necessary.

‘Preliminary assessment’ starts Monday
Nobles also recounted three recent investigations he conducted into the attorney general’s office, one in 2003 and two in 2005. And he noted the two state statutes that gave him the authority to launch investigations on his own.

Nobles warned the “attorney general to not take the lack of vote by the commission to minimize my authority to pursue an investigation.”

All of which raises the question: Why didn’t Nobles already do a preliminary inquiry on his own? Part of it is that he wanted to have a “discussion” with the members of the commission, knowing that the matter was delicate. But the other part is that the legislative auditor really is limited, to some degree, to financial audits. Initially, it wasn’t clear if the allegations against Swanson rose to the level of Nobles’ purview.

“This has been an unfolding issue, and it was my choice not to get involved,” Nobles said, adding that the blogging on company time and the alleged apparent doctoring of timesheets caught his attention — that in the “last day or two” he began wondering about “misuse of state resources” that would allow him to use his authority to open an inquiry.

When asked if he knew how long an investigation might take, Nobles simply said, “No.” For now, there’s just a “preliminary assessment” that he said will start Monday.

“A preliminary assessment takes weeks, not months, but weeks,” Nobles concluded. “A full-blown investigation takes months.”


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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Joel Bergstrom on 04/01/2008 - 10:39 pm.

    For the record, Representative Simon was holding a can of Diet Dr. Pepper.

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