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Swanson denies steering AG staff into political duties

Long-simmering tensions over workplace culture in Attorney General Lori Swanson’s office are drawing new attention just days ahead of the wide-open DFL primary for governor in which she’s competing.

In a story published Monday evening in the Intercept, an online news outlet, former and current unnamed staffers said employee raises and promotions over Swanson's three terms as attorney general were directly linked to "willingness of employees to participate in Swanson’s campaign work." That includes "stuffing envelopes for the benefit of the campaign and scheduling campaign events, sometimes during the work day," according to the article. Staffers also told the Intercept that they felt protecting and bolstering Swanson's reputation was the top priority in the office.

The Swanson campaign swung back hard at the report Tuesday, denying the allegations and calling it a "political attempt to settle scores."

"There is no political activity undertaken by any member of the attorney general's office while 'on the clock' for the government, period. Employees of the attorney general's office are paid and promoted based solely on their merit and work responsibilities, period," according to a statement from Swanson's campaign.

The statement, not attributed to any specific person or staff member, also copied and pasted campaign finance reports showing one named source in the story donated to Erin Murphy's campaign, one of Swanson's opponents in the DFL primary race, and questioned the motives of the Intercept because of business ties to some of its investors.

"As we get closer to the primary, we anticipate a continued onslaught of politically motivated attacks," the statement continued. 

Swanson, a Democrat, is competing in next Tuesday's DFL gubernatorial primary against Murphy, the DFL-endorsed state representative from St. Paul, and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. Swanson has won statewide elections three times and built a profile as the state's chief consumer protection advocate and is considered a front runner in this year's race.

Swanson's running mate, retiring congressman Rick Nolan, was also recently under fire after MinnPost reported a former staffer, Jim Swiderski, was allowed to leave in 2015 instead of face disciplinary actions after women in the office reported he sexually harassed them.

In 2016, Swiderski was briefly hired back as a contractor on Nolan’s re-election bid. The ticket is still facing backlash over the allegations, which spurred the creation of the hashtag #WhereIsLori after an initial slow response from the campaign.

And it's not the first time the culture inside Swanson's office has been questioned. Concerns surfaced as early as Swanson's first term as attorney general. In her first year alone, more than 50 of 150 attorneys had either been fired or quit, and an attempt to unionize staff in the office, who are at-will employees, was pushed back by her administration.

Concerns in the office were briefly under the scrutiny of the Office of the Legislative Auditor in 2008, which found some attorneys feared retaliation and felt pressure in "obtaining favorable media attention rather than the methodical legal work required to successfully litigate cases," according to the report.

During that earlier case, Swanson denied that personnel decisions in the office were motivated by politics. In an all-staff message sent during a failed unionization drive, Swanson wrote “I have not engaged in political hiring.”

Sarah Anderson, the Republican chair of a House government finance and operations committee, said she is concerned by the Intercept report and is considering holding a hearing on the culture of the attorney general's office next session, even if Swanson is leaving. There are five Democratic candidates and two Republicans competing in the primary to replace her.

"Whoever is the new attorney general, I don't want this to be continuation of business of usual. Clearly this is a culture in the office of how they do things," Anderson said. "It doesn't matter who is in charge, usually the people at the staff level are the ones that stay there no matter who is at the top level." 

Swanson's primary opponents haven't directly addressed the allegations. In a Tweet posted Monday night, Murphy pointed to the fact that her campaign is unionized and its staff is growing. Walz held a press call on education issues Tuesday; an aide said at the outset that the candidate would entertain questions on that topic only.