AG's office defends suspension of attorney

AG Lori Swanson
Attorney General Lori Swanson.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Amy Lawler has worked as an assistant attorney general in the complex litigation division of the Minnesota Attorney General's office since last November. She said a letter was delivered to her Minneapolis home Monday night notifying her that she had been placed on administrative leave.

"I think it's always a surprise to get a letter delivered to your house at 9:00 at night from your employer placing you on leave," she said. "But given the general climate of the office right now, I'm not sure if anything is much of a surprise anymore."

Last month, Lawler and two colleagues sent a letter to their boss, Attorney General Lori Swanson, urging her to recognize the will of the staff to organize a union. Lawler also shared her concerns in an MPR News report that aired last week.

She described a climate of anti-union intimidation and retaliation that was driving away many talented attorneys. Swanson declined to comment on those allegations.

"This is a young woman, a Harvard graduate, who wanted to dedicate herself to doing good work for the people of Minnesota, and she's being stopped by the attorney general for doing that. It's disgraceful."

During an interview, Lawler also described wrestling with ethical issues in her job. She said one issue came up when Swanson directed her to quickly file lawsuits against mortgage foreclosure consultants even though the attorney general had no defendants in mind.

"And that was kind of the case across the board," she said. "She's just have an idea about a lawsuit, and she'd want it filed as quickly as possible. The biggest was she wanted people who'd be willing to appear at press conferences."

Those ethical issues, which Lawler also shared with other reporters, were specifically referenced in the letter from Deputy Attorney General Karen Olson notifying her of the administrative leave.

Olson says Lawler did not go through proper channels with her concerns. She says if Lawler had an ethical issue, she should have raised it with the Minnesota Board of Professional Responsibility.

"Ms. Lawler never raised an ethical concern regarding these cases," Olson said. "Ms. Lawler signed the complaints. And in fact, Ms. Lawler has both verbally to her manager and to me in writing clearly indicated that she has no ethical concerns regarding these complaints. This office is very proud of the fact that it brings meritorious lawsuits, it investigates its lawsuits first, and it's proud of these lawsuits."

Beyond the issues raised in the letter to Lawler, Olson would not comment further on the reason for the paid administrative leave. But she insisted it was not the result of union activity.

Another assistant attorney general, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation, called the ethics issues a red herring. He said the leave was a predictable payback from an anti-union administration.

Lawler declined to speculate on the reason for her punishment until she consulted her own attorney.

Union leaders are talking. Eliot Seide, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, said he believes Lawler's leave has everything to do with union organizing. Seide said it appears that Lawler was punished for speaking the truth to the media.

"We will do whatever legal means necessary to protect Ms. Lawler," he said. "Amy's fighting to keep her job. This is a young woman, a Harvard graduate, who wanted to dedicate herself to doing good work for the people of Minnesota, and she's being stopped by the attorney general for doing that. It's disgraceful."

Meanwhile, Swanson sent a packet of information to DFL Legislative leaders this week insisting that state law prevents attorneys in her office from unionizing. She also claimed union organizers have been using a common tactic to stir the pot as their campaign falters.

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