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.
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