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What’s Swanson’s response to reports of office disarray?

Attorney General Lori Swanson
Attorney General Lori Swanson

Attorney General Lori Swanson has not spoken directly on the record to any reporters about the discord and disarray in her office that MinnPost has covered over recent days. But, through members of her staff, a letter to a suspended employee and an email to legislators, a partial version of Swanson’s take on the matter can be pieced together.

It includes these assertions: The suspension of Assistant Attorney General Amy Lawler was not done to punish her for speaking to the media, nor to punish her for pro-union activities. Lawler was placed on administrative leave for not going through proper channels with concerns she had about the legal ethics of things occurring in the office.

This statement, from Swanson spokester Brian Bergson, appeared in a Star Tribune piece this morning. Minnesota Public Radio also posted on Monday the full text of the letter to Lawler informing her that she had been placed on administrative leave.

That letter, signed by Deputy Attorney General Karen Olson, who was Lawler’s supervisor, lays out the official reasons that Lawler has been suspended. The letter does refer to the unionization effort and to Lawler’s interview with MinnPost, but the explicit reason given for the suspension is that that if Lawler had an ethical concern about her work, she should have taken it to the lawyers’ Board of Professional Responsibility, not to the media.

Olson and Bergson also gave to the state Capitol Hill press corps yesterday a report, written for legislative leaders, on the unionization issue. I hope to acquire and write about that report soon.

The Star Tribune story gave this quote from the report, signed by Swanson: “It is a common tactic for organizers to ‘stir the pot’ and get louder in their rhetoric as an organizing effort falters.”

Swanson’s handling of the Lawler matter was criticized yesterday by Republican Rep. Tom Emmer of Delano, who has asked that the House hold hearings on the matter, and by Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5, which represents the clerical workers in the AG’s office and has been trying to organize the attorneys in the office.

‘Here’s the door’

Emmer told MinnPost’s G.R. Anderson yesterday: “Somebody like Amy Lawler should be able to speak her mind. There should be some criticism taken.

“She’s apparently out of a job, in what appears to be a real sharp practice: Speak out and here’s the door.”

Emmer, who is deputy leader of the House Republicans, pushed again last night for Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, who also chairs the Rules Committee, to hold hearings on the matter.  “Are we just going to keep this thing under the rug or we are actually going to take some action?” Emmer said on the House floor.

Sertich acknowledged that the full story has not been told but was non-committal on scheduling a hearing.

Seide, of AFSCME, was blistering in his comments toward Swanson, as he has been since Swanson first rejected the union drive.
“We have a group of attorneys trying to practice good law for the people of Minnesota and they wanted to form a union so they could do that. Instead what they faced was a savage work environment of fear and intimidation,” he said.

AFSCME endorsed Swanson in the 2006 general election. When she met with the union’s convention before the election, Seide said, she said she supported the rights of workers to organize (although she did not specify that this applied to the attorneys in the AG’s office.) She unequivocally endorsed federal Employees Free Choice Act which says that workers have a right to organize in an environment free from intimidation, he said. She also said that she would make the AG’s office a model labor relations environment.

Seide believes that based on those statements, and based on the fact that last year the organizers acquired the signatures of the majority the lawyers in the AG’s office on cards calling for a union election, that Swanson should have accepted the wish of the employees to unionize.

But under the state Public Employees Labor Relations Act (PELRA), attorneys who work for a state constitutional officer (including the attorney general) do not have the same rights as other state workers to force a union election.

Huge turnover
Seide said that if Swanson was a good DFLer, she would join AFSCME and the AFL-CIO in seeking to change that provision. Meanwhile, he said, there is nothing to stop her from agreeing to confer with the attorneys in the office about a set of rules sheltering employees from retaliation if they speak out in the office. He described Swanson’s use of the special status of her subordinates under PELRA to be “hair-splitting.”

Something in the working environment of the AG’s office has contributed to a very high level of turnover. More than 50 of the roughly 135 assistant attorneys general have left the office during Swanson’s first year.

Lawler and at least a dozen other current and former employees of the office have said that the factor driving people away is an environment of politicization and intimidation that makes the staff afraid to work according to their own professional standards or to disagree with the dictates coming from Swanson and her top deputies.

Although most media and legislative attention continues to center on the unionization, the employees, including many who have left the office but say they are still afraid they will face retaliation if they speak about their experience there, say that the deeper issue is the dysfunctional office environment.

Eric Black, writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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