Legislative Auditor James Nobles launched his preliminary review two months ago in response to a handful of ethical questions raised against Attorney General Lori Swanson and her top aides.
An assistant attorney general, Amy Lawler, had claimed in media interviews that she was directed to file publicity-generating lawsuits before any defendants were identified.
Other unnamed employees said they were pressured to give bad advice to state clients, insert false information into an affidavit and post favorable information on blogs about their bosses.
Nobles says seven current and former employees provided sworn testimony as part of the preliminary investigation.
"While we found their testimony credible and it did substantiate the allegations, we simply concluded that the nature of the allegations is such that they really do not fall within the jurisdiction of the legislative auditor to investigate any further," Nobles said.
Nobles says no laws were broken because employees who described feeling pressured into ethically compromising situations were ultimately able to avoid doing the things they felt were inappropriate. He also says the pressure employees felt was not based on any direct threats from supervisors.
Nobles says his review is not a vindication of Swanson, and he says he found plenty of evidence of management problems within the office.
He says employee dissatisfaction came to a head shortly after Swanson took office in 2007, when she hired her predecessor, Mike Hatch, to stay on in a key position. Nobles described the discontent within the office as unsettling.
"That doesn't mean everybody in the office has to always agree. But when you have a fairly significant number of people -- both former and current attorneys -- expressing quite harsh criticism of the way they have been treated, particularly in the way they have been treated in actually doing legal work, I think those are things the attorney general needs to address," said Nobles.
Nobles intentionally steered clear of the union organizing efforts that have divided the attorney general's office for the past year. But he recommended that state lawmakers look into providing some civil service protections to attorneys in the office, by changing their status from unclassified to classified.
The attorney general declined an interview request, and instead issued a written statement. Swanson wrote that the legislative auditor's finding of no basis for further investigation was as she expected.
Swanson said the review was consistent with a separate investigation conducted at her request by Thomas Mengler, dean of the University of St. Thomas law school. Swanson also blamed the allegations on "mud-throwing union organizers."
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, chairman of the Legislative Audit Commission, praised the investigation. But Hansen agrees that Swanson must address the turmoil in her office. "There's an opportunity and time for the attorney general to try to work with folks in her office and make it a good workplace. We want our attorney general to succeed," said Hansen.
A key Republican critic still wants Swanson held accountable for ethical misconduct. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, says the legislative auditor might not have the jurisdiction for further investigation, but he says the findings clearly show the allegations were true.
"Any other attorney in the state of Minnesota that would have done these acts would risk their law license. They would risk disbarment or other serious consequence to their ability to practice law," said Emmer. "There is no reason that the highest ranking attorney in this state should be above that type of scrutiny."
Emmer has tried unsuccessfully for the past year to get other regulatory bodies to look at issues in the attorney general's office. He says it's too soon to know what other investigative options might be available.