Playing to stereotype, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson fired staff attorney Amy Lawler almost as soon as a report about Lawler’s conduct hit her desk Tuesday.
The report (PDF) was done at Swanson’s request by Thomas Mengler, dean of the University of St. Thomas law school. Mengler received no payment for the report, which concluded Lawler had violated rules of professional conduct when she went public with “confidential, privileged communications” about her concerns over ethical practices within the AG’s office, rather than using internal reporting procedures.
That, he concluded, was a violation of Rule 1.6 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct.
Mengler was asked to do the report by Swanson because of his “unique background,” said Swanson spokesman Brian Bergson. Mengler formerly was an assistant attorney general in Texas and also has an impressive academic background.
“He was doing this as a public service,” said Bergson.
For his part, Mengler said he accepted the job because “I had no dog in this fight.”
Mengler report limited in scope
Mengler in his report did not address Lawler’s more-sweeping charges about morale in Swanson’s office. But he did report “there is no reasonable basis for believing that either Attorney General Swanson or Deputy AG (Karen) Olson acted unprofessionally in any way or violated any Minnesota Rule of Professional Conduct.”
By not addressing the charges that lawyers in the AG’s office work in an environment of fear and intimidation, however, Mengler seemed to put Lawler in an untenable position.
In the report, Mengler wrote that Lawler should have addressed her concerns about the ethics of the office to supervisors. But in broader charges she had made, Lawler said attorneys were afraid to raise concerns with managers for fear of harassment or instant dismissal.
Mengler said he was aware of that paradox.
“I understand your question,” Mengler told me. “If you look at the report, you’ll see that I wrote that she should have turned to supervising attorneys, OR the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility. We teach all attorneys to follow process.”
Neither Lawler nor her attorney, Eric Cooperstein, would comment on Swanson’s decision or on the Mengler report. Cooperstein would not say what a next step might be for his client.
Lawler, who had worked at the AG’s office for just 90 days before being suspended by Swanson, faces two issues. First, she likely will have to deal with any ethics charges that are made against her.
Also, there could be some matters she might decide to take up with the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union. AFSCME officials seem more than ready to help — or use — Lawler’s case as a reason Minnesota law should be changed so that lawyers in the attorney general’s office can organize.
Union head furious over Lawler firing
Eliot Seide, executive director of Council 5 of AFSCME, was furious about Lawler’s firing.
“As DFLers, they should want people to work in a dignified environment,” said Seide of former Attorney General Mike Hatch and his successor, Swanson. “As DFLers, they should be encouraging a change in the law so that their employees can collectively bargain. But it’s just the opposite. It appears to me they all but admit she was fired because of her union activities” – a charge Swanson has denied.
Seide was especially indignant about a statement Hatch submitted to MinnPost this morning in defense of his own leadership practices when he was attorney general. In the statement, Hatch said in his eight years in office he had opposed any attempt to change state law that prohibits attorneys in the AG’s office from forming a union.
“With 3,000 cases pending at any time, the state cannot have a jamboree of chickadees chirping different legal policy from every branch of government,” Hatch said in his statement.
Seide says all union members should be outraged at being referred to as “chirping chickadees.”
He noted that people in all sorts of professional backgrounds are in unions in state government, including assistant district attorneys in counties throughout the state, even the biggest, Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
“Are these people just chirping chickadees?” he asked.
Lawler openly admitted that she was actively involved in union organizing activities at the time her reports of intimidation and questionable ethics practices in the AG’s office became news in March. She charged that cases were being hurried to bring positive media coverage to Swanson.
She said she raised those concerns at a Nov. 20 meeting in which lawsuits against two mortgage companies were being discussed with Swanson and other lawyers.
Mengler said in his report that other attorneys at those meetings did not support Lawler’s claims. But again, there’s the paradox about her basic charge: If the environment at the AG’s office is as bad as Lawler and other attorneys claim, would those attorneys be willing to confront their bosses?
Mengler said he’s not claiming he’s “gotten to the bottom” of all that may, or may not, be going on at the AG’s office.
For his part, Seide said that he understands that under the current Public Employment Labor Relations Act, the lawyers in the AGs office cannot organize for collective bargaining. But, he said, there’s nothing to prevent Swanson from meeting with him and attorneys in the office “to talk about what can be done to make this a better workplace.”
“I’ve had one meeting with her,” he said, “and since then, she’s refused to talk.”
But it’s clear that the firing of Lawler is not going to end this story.
The report of Legislative Auditor James Nobles, to be released soon, is expected to take on broader issues than those taken on by Mengler.
Seide, too, is more determined than ever not to walk away from the dispute.
“Hatch and Swanson should be ashamed,” he said.