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The Swanson investigation that never was

If anyone has felt vindicated in Swansongate — the staffing scandals in the Minnesota Attorney General’s office — it might be state Rep. Tom Emmer.

Emmer, a somewhat blustery Republican from Delano, was all over the Lori Swanson story when I talked to him on the phone from the Capitol Tuesday. “Absolutely,” he said when I asked him if he felt it was time for the House to investigate Swanson’s office. “She may have even violated some federal labor laws, but that really isn’t our jurisdiction.”

Emmer said he would bring the issue again from the House floor Tuesday evening, which is exactly what he did, asking DFLer Tony Sertich, the House majority leader and chair of the House Rules committee, if there would be a hearing. Sertich’s response: Dunno. (The PiPRess political blog has the exchange.)

In fact, Emmer isn’t a Johnny-come-lately on the issue. He indicated Tuesday afternoon that he made a motion from the floor last spring calling for oversight into staff turnover in the AG’s office, and that “got buried in the Rules committee.”

A little sleuthing bears this out. On May 8, 2007, right-wing blog Minnesota Democrats Exposed posted a letter from Emmer to Swanson formally requesting “data pertaining to the Minnesota Attorney General’s office,” specifically a list of people who had left the office, e-mail correspondence between Swanson and former AG Mike Hatch, and e-mails between Swanson and staff counsel related to “union activity,” among other things.

“Recent allegations have arisen,” Emmer wrote to Swanson, “regarding potential improper firing of employees and improper working conditions with an office atmosphere of intimidation and harassment.” The letter is stamped “2nd request.”

And the day before, on May 7, according to the Minnesota House Journal (PDF), Emmer indeed made a motion that instructed “the House Committee on Commerce and Labor to conduct a hearing and report back to this body within the next seven days on allegations that Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson may be punishing lawyers and staff of the Office of the Attorney General in retaliation for their efforts to organize with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (or ‘AFSCME’).”

The matter was instead referred, by Sertich, to the Committee on Rules and Legislative Administration. It passed unanimously, with 129 yea votes.

‘It had deteriorated’

“Ever since then, I’ve asked Sertich about it, ‘What’s the status in committee?’ And he never has an answer on whether we’ll address it yes or no,” Emmer told me Tuesday afternoon. “The rules committee didn’t think it was a good idea.”

Sertich responded Wednesday afternoon saying, “We actually had a discussion last spring about this that Rep. Emmer seems to have forgotten.” According to Sertich, the rules committee went to the non-partisan legal counsel that the House has on staff. “They advised us not to interfere in any ongoing employment dispute with any potential legal ramifications,” Sertich said.
Will Swanson’s office come under any House investigation? “We’ll continue to be advised [by counsel] and take it at its course,” Sertich said. For now, Sertich said he wanted “to lift this out of the politics” and keep the decision with the non-partisan counsel, so that he and other House DFLers wouldn’t appear sympathetic to one of their own (Swanson is a Democrat).
“I never want to cast aspersions,” Sertich concluded, “but [Emmer] has made more statements than asked questions, and sometimes that’s telling.”

Emmer, for his part, is perhaps not known as a champion of labor organizing, and certainly there’s ugly politics in the air. It’s been speculated by some that Emmer, himself a lawyer, may have his sights set on being attorney general someday. And Emmer’s uncle, Drew Emmer, publishes a blog called Wright County Republican that has repeatedly hammered Swanson on any number of issues emanating from her office.

Still, it appears Emmer’s aim was true, even if his intentions are complex. “There are significant questions. We’ve got folks in that office telling us that. I’m not sure what the issue is,” Emmer said, adding that turnover has been “ugly.” 

“A year later it has not stabilized,” Emmer continued. “In fact, you could say it had deteriorated.”

Related content

What’s Swanson’s response to reports of office disarray?
By Eric Black | Tuesday, 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, 2007

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