Accusations of ethical misconduct in Attorney General Lori Swanson's office are now under investigation, including two probes launched by Swanson herself. And they're all unfolding against the backdrop of a bitter battle over attempts to unionize her staff attorneys.
Legislative Auditor James Nobles decided Friday to begin what he called a preliminary investigation of "any sort of inappropriate, unethical, illegal activity" in the AG's office. And he reserves the right to launch a more elaborate probe depending on what he finds.
But he will limit his search to specific allegations of wrongdoing.
"But we will not simply engage in some broad ranging fishing expedition."
Nobles made his decision during a two hour meeting of the Legislative Audit Commission, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate with the power to assign Nobles to a case.
Representative Steve Simon, a Saint Louis Park Democrat, asked fellow commissioners to put Nobles on the job of tracking down allegations of legal and ethical violations former employees have made in interviews with reporters.
"We really need to do the right thing here and it shouldn't matter what party we are or where we are in the ideological spectrum," remarked Representative Simon, who was an assistant attorney general during the Mike Hatch era.
"I think we do all have an obligation to see if there is anything to these very serious allegations."
Simon said he was especially disturbed by media accounts about a former Swanson employee who claimed, among other things, she was told to find companies for Swanson to sue on high-profile issues.
He read a list of seven serious accusations, some from anonymous sources, which have appeared in blogs and online stories.
"Whether or not one or more employees were pressured to post flattering or complimentary comments about the Attorney General on blogs, whether or not thereafter an attorney or someone else was pressured to alter or falsify a state timesheet," Simon asserted, "That to me seems quite outside the scope any of these political cage matches that seem to be going on in respect to the unionization effort."
Nobles later told reporters that he would also protect the confidentiality of any former or current staff members who wanted to provide information to his office.
Not a witch hunt
But because the Attorney General is a political figure, and the case is entwined with a larger feud over labor issues, lawmakers were hesitant to unleash Nobles on anything that could be construed as a witch hunt.
"Because you know our next meeting one of you may come in and say I want a fishing expedition of, well, fill in the blank!" Senator Ann Rest, a New Hope Democrat told her colleagues.
Senator Rest, like many on the panel, didn't want Nobles to look into the unionization question.
"It is not up to the Legislative Auditor to determine whether it's currently legal or potentially legal for attorneys or other staff in the Attorney General's office to be organized."
Nobles agreed the scope should be limited to actual claims of improper conduct.
"That's what it really comes down to," Nobles said, "Have people been improperly told, influenced or pressured in terms of the work of that office that should be nonpartisan?"
And while the panel decided not to vote on the volatile issue, Nobles took the cue to initiate an investigation on his own.
He told the commission, "I would insist that the Attorney General not take this lack of a vote by this commission as any diminishment of my authority to pursue these issues."
"I just want everybody to understand that authorization from this commission is not necessary," Nobles explained later, "That I still have the authority to pursue this. And I will."
Swanson versus Seide
Just after taking office in 2007 Swanson became locked in a battle of wills with Eliot Seide, the head of the AFSCME state employees union, after saying attorneys in her office can't legally form a union.
Her reading of state law is that the Public Employee Labor Relations Act, which guarantees state workers' rights to organize, specifically exempts unclassified employees appointed by a Constitutional officer. Two outside attorneys hired to review the question came up with the same answer.
Seide at the time told reporters at the time he seriously regretted that AFSCME had endorsed Swanson in her run to replace her former boss Mike Hatch as Attorney General. Since then pro union flyers had shown up on employees desks, according to workers who've since left the office.
They also received anonymous letters demanding that the people behind the union flyers show their faces. It also challenged AFSCME's ability to better the lot of those attorneys.
"AFSCME got a whopping 3% raise for the attorneys working in state government. Do you know anyone in the office who received so little a raise this year?"
The letter also suggested Swanson's political rivals are behind the effort to unionize.
"The political gamesmanship part of this on both sides, frankly, disgusts me and ought to disgust all Minnesotans," Simon asserted in the committee, "It's just petty and immature and in equal measure on both sides in my opinion."
Calls for action
This month Representative Tom Emmer, a Delano Republican, wrote legislative leaders asking them to investigate media reports that that Swanson's employees were being punished for attempts to organize.
"The recent decision to place an employee who has been a vocal advocate of unionization on administrative leave only enhances the need for a thorough investigation," Emmer wrote on March 12th in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller and House Speaker Margaret Kelliher.
Those leaders haven't yet acted on that request, but Swanson wrote to legislators Monday saying she's already seeking two independent, outside inquiries into those claims.
Swanson asked the Dean of the University of Saint Thomas Law School, Thomas Mengler, to conduct a full investigation. She's also asked the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility to check out some of the accusations leveled by former employees in media accounts.
Swanson's reaction to Nobles
The Attorney General did not stand for questions Friday, but issued a statement through her office, saying she welcomed the Legislative Auditor's probe.
She said she looks forward to his findings, as well as the those from Dean Mengler and the lawyer's board.
But Swanson pointed the finger at AFSCME's Seide, accusing him of pushing "unsubstantiated allegations" and anonymous claims in the media as part of the campaign to organize the office's attorneys.
"Mr. Seide is a man on a search and destroy mission" Swanson wrote.
Jennifer Munt, communications director for AFSCME Council 5, told KARE TV Friday that Seide and the union are staying on the sidelines for now.
"We await the auditor's findings," Munt wrote, "But have no comment since the investigation isn't about the union organizing campaign."
(Copyright 2008 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)