Editorial: Resolution needed in AG controversy
March 23, 2008
In the turmoil now swirling around the Minnesota attorney general's office, no one
should question Lori Swanson's expertise or her work ethic. Before her election
in 2006, Minnesota's top lawyer spent years as former AG Mike Hatch's top gun.
Her consumer-protection work -- cracking down on predatory lenders, health
insurers' wasteful spending and financial firms that target the elderly --
continues to benefit a wide range of Minnesotans.
But as union advocates battle to organize the DFLer's staff, disturbing allegations have surfaced about mismanagement and potentially unethical behavior. We respect Swanson's concerns that these may be politically motivated attacks or retaliation by anonymous disgruntled employees. But her office has immense power; it can compel a company to turn over its most sensitive records, or make front-page charges of fraud. If there are questions about the office's integrity, those questions need to be
It's time for independent review by a respected nonpartisan broker -- we suggest Legislative Auditor James Nobles -- to clear the air. he year has already yielded an example of how valuable such a review can be. In January, Nobles' office put an end to a months long controversy involving Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, clearing him of using office contacts to solicit campaign contributions.
Swanson acknowledged in an interview this week the "radioactive" effect that even raising ethics violations has in the legal world. And in a Feb. 19 e-mail, she wrote that the turmoil threatened to "undermine the work of this office.'' Given that, she should welcome an outside review to address the allegations. Among them: that the impulse to sue preceded a finding of wrongdoing; that consumer statements were tampered with, and that pro-union employees were targeted for termination.
An independent review should also examine attorney turnover. According to Swanson, 49 attorneys have left since she was elected, out of a staff of 155 to 160, for a turnover rate of about 30 percent. Swanson contends that private firms have similar attrition and that a higher number, 54, left during Hatch's first 15 months. Hatch, however, fired most; under Swanson, most left voluntarily. And just to compare: After the last election, the Hennepin County attorney's office had 11 percent turnover.
Unlike politically appointed officeholders, Swanson must answer to the voters. She should be given wide latitude in running the office. She can hire bright young attorneys, as she has. She can listen to the advice of outside legal opinion that the law prohibits unionizing her attorneys.
Ultimately, Swanson and her critics want the same thing: a fair resolution and an office that functions at its best. An independent review will help end the rancor and
let the office focus on its most important client: the citizens of Minnesota.
© 2008 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Thursday, March 13, 2008
I am the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local 2938. We represent the Assistant County Attorneys and Assistant Public Defenders and other legal professionals employed by Hennepin County. Our Executive Board has asked me to write to show our strong support for the attorneys and legal staff at the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office in their effort to organize under AFSCME. In particular we want to commend the courage of the three Assistant Attorneys General who spoke publicly about the organizing effort.
We have had union representation with AFSCME for over 35 years. We understand firsthand the importance of union representation and just-cause terminations in a public law office. We too work in an environment that experiences a political election every four years. We believe that union representation has helped us avoid the politically charged environment that currently plagues the Attorney Generals Office, an atmosphere that makes it difficult for their attorneys to do their jobs. In Hennepin County, we work in concert with our elected officials. Union representation ultimately benefits the public.
Union representation allows us to negotiate our salaries, and to ensure that salaries are consistent throughout the offices. Union representation allows us to negotiate our health and insurance benefits, as well as other conditions of employment. Union representation gives us a voice, and allows us to communicate productively with management, without fear of reprisal or of losing our jobs. In Hennepin County, elections are not followed by large numbers of staff resigning. We firmly believe that union representation benefits the citizens of Hennepin County by fostering retention of our highly skilled and experienced attorneys and other legal staff. We do better work, with fewer staff, than similar offices throughout the country.
We understand that over 50 attorneys, more than a third of the staff, have left the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office in the past year. That kind of turnover only brings down morale, weakens an office overall and reduces productivity. It does not benefit citizens. We also just learned that Amy Lawler, one of the three attorneys who spoke out publicly, has been placed on administrative leave for an unspecified period of time. This is why union representation is so important. There does not appear to be any process within that office for raising concerns with management without risking your job, as Ms. Lawler’s case demonstrates.
We offer our support and assistance as the employees at the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office try and raise their voice to be heard. We wish them success, and hope that the public that these dedicated public servants serve, will support them too.
President AFSCME Local 2938
Sunday, March 9, 2008
A Message to Attorney General Lori Swanson
March 9, 2008 by cornerhousecomments
As Martin Luther King once said: ” The time is always right to do what is right.” Nowhere is this more true than in the office of the Attorney General.
Those words, AG Swanson, are from your inaugural remarks upon taking office in January 2006.
You talked about Clarence Darrow:
… a famous lawyer from the last century who used the law to fight for the rights of labor and people without clout. Darrow once said that: “As long as the world shall last there will be wrongs, and if no man objected and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever.”
You also had this to say:
My mission is for the Attorney General’s Office to fight for the rights of everyday people, and especially those without a voice.In my Attorney General’s Office, no one will be so powerful they are above the law or so powerless they are beneath its protection.
We will be attentive and responsive to the needs of our citizens, and we will never forget that it’s the people of Minnesota who pay our salaries and whom we serve.
In your remarks you ask the question, “What makes a good Attorney General?”, and you offer some answers:
An Attorney General should put the public interest above all else.
An Attorney General should help everyday people get a fair shake when the deck is stacked against them by those who hold the cards.
An Attorney General should make sure that everyone, no matter who they are or who they know–or who they don’t know–has an Attorney General on their side.
Pretty good speech Ms Swanson but is that all it was? A bunch of words that have no real meaning to you? Maybe you should read it again and then ask these questions:
Would a good Attorney General hold captive audience meetings to coerce employees into opposing the union?
Would a good Attorney General use fear and intimidation to run the office?
Would a good Attorney General let over 50 professionals from the office leave and not care?
Would a good Attorney General ask the employees to sign a loyalty pledge?
Would a good Attorney General fire or reassign employees who are involved in the union organizing effort?
Attorney General Swanson, please reread the section of your inaugural remarks about Clarence Darrow. You know, the part about a famous lawyer who uses the law to fight for the rights of labor.
Step out of the way. Respect the will of your employees. Do your job of protecting the rights of all of the citizens of Minnesota, including your staff.
Martin Luther King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” Heed his advice.
Peace & solidarity?
Friday, March 7, 2008
Sunday, February 24, 2008
http://minnlawyer.blogspot.com/2008/02/update-on-labor-issue-at-ags-office.html (Discussing the dog and pony show "Letter Election")
http://minnlawyer.blogspot.com/2008/02/results-of-informal-survey-at-ago-are.html (Discussing the results of the "Letter Election." Note: At least 44 people voiced concerns about the office or the election itself and at least 30 people weren't even polled. We are dumbfounded that Swanson calls this a victory.)
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
The letter to Ms. Swanson was hand delivered to 102 State Capitol Building on Thursday, February 14, at 8:21 AM. The Attorney General's receptionist signed an acknowledgement of receipt of the letter. Therefore, Ms. Swanson had two full working days to review the letter and formulate a response before the posting was made. We also understand that Ms. Swanson appeared to be in good health at a luncheon date with a select group of new AAGs on Friday.
In addition, the letter was posted only as a means to update other AAGs. We did not distribute the letter to the media or host a press conference. We have not ambushed or made anyone a victim. In fact, we have made every effort to take the high road at every turn. We hope that AAG's see the blog as a source of information, and a forum in which they can safely discuss their concerns. We will continue to use the blog as a positive forum, and hardly agree that the posting of concerns about a taxpayer funded office, accountable to the citizenry of this state, is embarrassing or detrimental to the institution. Indeed, this effort is about supporting the proud tradition of independence and solid legal work of the office, for which its attorneys and staff are primarily responsible.
For the last year, we have stated repeatedly why we believe the AGO staff should be allowed to form a labor union. The question now is why doesn't Ms. Swanson believe the AGO staff should be allowed to make this decision?
If the AG is supportive of Labor, she should embrace our efforts and help us get PELRA language modified. If she is ambivalent, then she should step aside while we work with the legislature to modify the PELRA. And if she is opposed, she should explain her reasoning.
While we don't believe it's fair to put staff in the position of revealing to the boss their personal opinon about the union, we expect that any tallying or gauging of the positions of current staff members on the union effort be done in a lawful, democratic and fair manner. We expect that staff's privacy and personal boundaries be respected. We expect that any further meetings regarding this issue be attended or conducted by a neutral third party.
Friday, February 15, 2008
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Sunday, January 20, 2008
We believe that working for an elected official (as an attorney or a "legal assistant") is different than working for a private law firm for the following reasons:
- The public sector lawyer is ultimately accountable to the Minnesota taxpayers, while the private sector lawyer is accountable to the private paying client.
- The public sector lawyer works for an elected boss. That boss must campaign every four years, and the staff might have a new boss every four years. It is undeniable that partisan politics plays a central role in the atmosphere in the office, and can weigh heavily in the decision making in the office. The private sector lawyer likely maintains the same boss or bosses over a much longer term. While there are certainly "politics" to every job, the private sector does not experience the outside political pressures that public sector law firms experience.
- An at-will public sector lawyer must decide whether to put her job at risk and say no to the elected official's request, if she or he does not think the request is supported by the law. A great example can be found in comments made recently by Mike Hatch at a CLE entitled "What to do when the Attorney General comes calling" Mr. Hatch admitted that a lawsuit his office filed against a company was generated out of his personal grudge. At least in the private sector, a lawyer can decline to represent a client who litigates on a grudge.
- Many private sector attorneys are paid a lot more than the public sector attorneys. At some of the medium and larger sized firms in the twin cities, the new associates fresh out of law school earn 20% more than the most experienced staff in the public sector, and more than the Attorney General herself. People who work in the public sector obviously don't do it for the money. Aside from the satisfaction of serving the citizens, public sector employees should be able to enjoy some benefits, such as paid holidays, decent health care, and yes, job security.
- Public sector attorney organizing is fairly common. In fact, just about all other public sector law firms in Minnesota and in the federal system, the line staff are protected by unions or civil service (or both). Hennepin County and Ramsey County Attorneys Offices are both unionized. Dakota County staff are protected. St. Louis County staff recently organized. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul City Attorney's Offices are unionized. The federal US Attorney's Office staff have job protection through a civil service type of system. Why is the Attorney General's Office the only large public law office with no form of job protection for the line staff?
This isn't about Lori Swanson, it isn't about Mike Hatch and it's not even about everyone in the office. In fact, we believe that there are a finite amount of AG staff who should be unclassified. But this movement is about the bulk of the staff; the people who represent our state's agencies, boards, departments. The people who have specialized knowledge in their respective fields and must be relied upon for advice based on the law, not an agenda or a grudge.
This is about fairness, common sense, and what is best for the citizens of Minnesota. This is about securing future stability in an office that has been decimated over the past 9 years by the loss of a staggering number of experienced staff; losses that have accelerated over the last several months. The drain on the office is not merely noticeable, it is alarming. Staff are isolated, overworked, underpaid and there is no objective merit salary increase or cost of living adjustment system in place. We have no voice, and no way to constructively communicate frustrations without fear of losing our jobs, or our current position or assignment.
There IS a difference between working in the private and public sectors. A big difference. There is no reason that the Attorney General needs 300 plus at-will employees. It makes sense for the line staff to have job security, and a mechanism for communication. We hope that we can achieve this goal, and get the office back on track to concentrate on what it does best: working for the citizens of Minnesota.
Friday, January 18, 2008
We will continue our house visits this weekend. OFF the taxpayers' dime. Meanwhile the Swanson loyalty pledge petition continues to be (boldly) circulated during business hours.
Monday, January 14, 2008
- Job security will allow us to focus on fulfilling the statutory obligations of the attorney general to the best of our abilities. This obligation should not be minimized or compromised by the politics of the AG.
- The citizens of Minnesota are better served by stable, experienced workforce. Turnover is to be expected in a normal work environment, but the entire depth of experience and knowledge at the attorney general's office should not have the potential to be flushed out every time the office changes hands. There are about 300 "at will" employees in the office.
- Staff salaries should be consistent and transparent. Heck, it might be helpful to the AG if the pay scale process was set in stone. Currently, the AG can be hurt politically if s/he raises the staff salaries (even slightly) and often waits until odd times of the year or until after an election year to give raises or bonuses.
- Communication, communication, communication. Why do staff arrive (or depart) with little or no fanfare? Why doesn't the office post transfer opportunities? What is going on in the office? We are kept in silos and often have no idea what other divisions, much less the office as a whole, is doing.
- You could say no OR yes to envelope stuffing parties, door knocking outings and lawn signs (and internal petitions) because you want to, not because you are driven by fear to do so.
- Job security. Hey, this isn't about a bureaucratic free ride--we expect to work hard and we want to do the best job we can for the State. But there should be a process for termination or demotion, etc. As noted in other posts, at present an AG termination comes as a coldcock to the AAG or legal assistant (and from what we gather, quite often to the manager who does the termination as well.) We'd like a process in place to explain "problems" before they reach the point of termination and give the staff person a chance to improve or consider a change in venue.
- If staff had done this 20 years ago, we wouldn't be playing these games now. Let's make changes now so that future AG staff (and Attorneys General!) can enjoy the benefits.
- A healthy workplace yields happy, productive staff.