Departing corrections staffer says probe involved lobbying on state time

Sarah Walker
Sarah Walker announced her resignation from the Department of Corrections Friday, just six months after she was appointed to the executive team by Commissioner Paul Schnell.
Brian Bakst | MPR News 2017

Sarah Walker says her sudden resignation from the Department of Corrections last week has nothing to do with an internal investigation against her, which she believes started after a state legislator complained that she was lobbying privately on state time.

Walker told MPR News she believes Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, complained that she lobbied for a veteran's restorative justice bill after she accepted her appointment to the executive team of the Department of Corrections. She said any allegation that she lobbied while working for the state is false.

"After accepting my appointment to the DOC, I transferred all of my lobbying clients to other registered lobbyists and consciously avoided conduct that would give even an appearance of impropriety in this context," Walker said in a statement. Before joining the department in January, Walker was a longtime criminal justice reform advocate, lobbyist and most recently worked at a St. Paul-based public relations and strategic communications firm.

Department of Corrections spokesperson Sarah Fitzgerald confirmed there are multiple complaints regarding Walker and an investigation is ongoing, but she did not confirm the nature of any complaint.

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For his part, Lesch denies that he filed any such complaint.

"The narrative that she put out is false," he said. "I expect that the results from the investigation will ultimately be public under Data Practices and people will be able to see that I didn't file any complaints."

Walker announced her resignation from the department Friday morning, just six months after she was appointed to the correction's executive team by Commissioner Paul Schnell.

In a brief statement to MPR News last week, Schnell said he valued Walker's contributions and added that he hopes "to quickly find a replacement to carry on the important work of criminal justice reform. I wish Sarah well in her future endeavors."

Before she started with the state, Walker said she lobbied pro-bono for a bill that provides a restorative justice pathway for veterans charged with certain crimes. But she said transferred all of her clients to other lobbyists as soon as she started as deputy commissioner. She said she didn't take any meetings or calls with legislators to discuss the bill.

In her letter of resignation, Walker cited work she did as head of the community services division and said local and national opportunities prompted her to leave. She maintains her decision to leave the department is unrelated to any complaint against her.

"My decision to resign was based on my belief that I am best able to influence racial and gender equity and criminal justice policy from a different platform," she said in a statement.

But questions about her sudden resignation last week prompted Republican lawmakers to file a request under the Data Practices Act for Walker's texts, emails, calendar appointments and payroll information, as well as the results of any investigations into her.

The departure also comes after a week of turmoil in DFL Gov. Tim Walz's administration. Department of Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey and his chief of staff also resigned suddenly last week, and little is known about their departure. They were not subject to ongoing investigations.

"There's always turnover in agencies," Walz said Monday, thanking Walker for her services. "This will not be the final turnover we will get. People make professional decisions and there may be different directions agencies go, but we will try and continue to communicate with folks of why those decisions are being made so they can know they are being served."