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June 4, 2008: Minnesotans deserve better from AG’s office

August 2, 2018

Editor’s note: This editorial was originally published June 4, 2008.

More so than most officials, Attorney General Lori Swanson has the potential to affect the everyday lives of the millions of Minnesotans she represents. Serving as the state’s chief legal officer, Swanson and her staff provide expertise to more than 100 state agencies, represent the state in court and enforce the law in these critical areas: consumer protection, antitrust and charities regulation.

When this office is in turmoil, as it has been for some time, Minnesotans should pay attention. This spring, bitter allegations of mismanagement, improper conduct and retaliation for unionizing came to a head, prompting a legislative auditor’s inquiry. On Tuesday, James Nobles released his report, concluding that there is no basis for further investigation by his office. The findings are not the exoneration that Swanson’s office portrays them to be. If anything, they reinforce that the situation bears scrutiny.

The auditor’s investigation was limited in scope and did not attempt to prove or disprove the disturbing allegations made by Swanson’s staff. Seven people were interviewed under oath. Among the allegations considered: that attorneys were pressured to tamper with affidavits, file lawsuits garnering favorable publicity and give advice not in the best interest of the client. Those interviewed testified that the events that gave rise to those allegations did occur and that they felt pressured to act inappropriately, even though they also stated that no inappropriate, unethical or illegal actions resulted from the pressure.

Even if staff attorneys were able to avoid doing inappropriate legal work, the office environment created by the pressure from on high most likely has contributed to the 30 percent turnover in Swanson’s staff since her election.

The report should not be interpreted by Swanson as justification for business as usual. The attorney general’s duty to the public goes beyond adhering to the letter of the law. The office’s true asset is its human capital -- the public-spirited brainpower on which the place runs. Although Swanson may not have crossed legal lines, Nobles’ report gives good reason to doubt that she and her predecessor, Mike Hatch, have been the best possible stewards of that asset.

There’s time in the two years before the next election to fix what ails this office. Swanson is a smart attorney and hard worker. But the state’s top legal job also requires her to be something more: a good manager. It’s a different skill set than that which has carried Swanson far in her career. But it’s something she can -- and must -- learn.

A good start for Swanson would be to offer public assurance that she values all of her staff and intends to regain their trust. Right now, many feel more comfortable talking to bloggers or reporters. It will take far more effort on Swanson’s part to fix this than her current method for connecting with staff -- so-called quality circle meetings that are supposed to encourage candor but likely do anything but. A most effective tool for a boss hoping for good human relations? An open door.

Swanson’s actions over the course of the year will indicate her progress. More firings and departures would be a red flag. Stability and fewer complaints would suggest a smart elected official who is broadening her skills and is on her way to becoming the well-rounded, independent leader the state of Minnesota needs in this important office.