Originally published in The Intercept on August 6, 2018.
Lori Swanson, Minnesota’s three-term attorney general and current candidate for governor, has presided over an office culture in which professional success is linked to the willingness of employees to participate in Swanson’s campaign work, eight former and current employees of the attorney general’s office told The Intercept.
Swanson, a moderate Democrat who was first elected in 2007, has kept a remarkably low profile throughout her 11 years in office, largely avoiding crowds and close media coverage. Just last month, Minnesota Public Radio described her as “an atypically private politician who runs a tightly-controlled office and makes few public appearances.” Unlike nearly all other politicians across the country, she maintains no personal or professional presence on Twitter or Facebook.
None of this is by accident, according to sources familiar with Swanson. Lawyers and other employees who have worked for her describe a highly politicized office in which burnishing Swanson’s image is a primary focus.
The lawyers and other staffers in the attorney general’s office interviewed for this article said they felt pressured to carry out tasks like stuffing envelopes for the benefit of the campaign and scheduling campaign events, sometimes during the work day. They said they felt their promotions and pay raises were based partly on participation in political campaigns. Attorneys reported foregoing basic legal work to instead correspond with constituents and defend the office’s and Swanson’s reputation in various public relations campaigns — work they said they felt was political. Multiple sources reported that these office dynamics began as early as Swanson’s first year in office and continued through this year.
It is not illegal for politicians to invite their employees to get involved with their campaigns. However, Minnesota law bars the use of “official authority or influence” to compel employees to engage in political activity.
Ruth Stanoch, a spokesperson for Swanson’s campaign, said the allegations are “categorically false” and that additional questions should be directed to the attorney general’s office. A spokesperson from that office, Benjamin Wogsland, told The Intercept that anyone who volunteers on a political campaign must do so own their own personal time, and that “the office does not consider an employee’s participation in the political process or lack thereof in determining raises and promotions.” He declined to answer specific follow-up questions unless The Intercept would name the employees we interviewed.
Former staff and legal observers are also calling attention to other elements of Swanson’s record. These include what was widely considered an aggressive union busting effort she conducted early in her first term. Also of note, they say, is a history of touting high-profile lawsuits against corporate defendants and the Trump administration — and then settling or exiting them quietly after the press had moved on.
Democrats are expected to maintain control of the governor’s mansion in the November election, and a recent poll showed Swanson with a narrow lead over her two more progressive primary opponents. But with the August 14 primary fast approaching, those who worked with her say they want Democratic voters to know more about the candidate for whom they’re being asked to cast a ballot.
SWANSON’S GUBERNATORIAL CAMPAIGN has prompted former and current employees to reveal what they say is political activity within her office. Most who spoke to The Intercept did so on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation by one of the most powerful Democrats in the state. They told The Intercept that, throughout Swanson’s tenure, they and other employees scheduled campaign events and stuffed envelopes while working in the attorney general’s office. They also said employees staffed campaign events during the business day and on the weekends. According to a source with detailed firsthand knowledge of these practices, not all employees were asked to participate, and those who did engage in campaign work were typically shuttled from the attorney general’s large office in downtown St. Paul to a much smaller executive suite at the state Capitol, to maintain discretion. Multiple sources said political work also took place in the downtown office, in the consumer services division, and in the Medicaid fraud unit, among other places. Sometimes, according to another source who left the downtown office this year, attorneys were asked to spend full days doing public relations work, researching information to rebut any negative news articles about the attorney general.
The current and former staffers described how Swanson’s inner circle would ask workers, including attorneys, to conduct political work for the attorney general. According to these sources, Swanson’s revolving network of allies included individuals from different levels of her office, with varying job titles, responsibilities, and qualifications. To induce participation, they emphasized that Swanson was a rising political star who would one day be governor, and therefore in control of thousands of appointments that she could give to her supporters. Sources described these supporters making these pitches one-on-one, often behind closed doors.
Five employees told The Intercept that they believed that advancement in the attorney general’s office was partly tied to participation in political events on Swanson’s behalf, though she never explicitly stated this. According to these accounts, supporting Swanson politically yielded professional rewards, including promotions and pay raises. One source described other benefits, such as tickets to sporting events. Two sources told The Intercept they were aware of political activity in the office but declined to participate, including, in one instance, after receiving a direct overture. They said they felt no pressure but speculated that this choice may have affected future promotions.
Publicly available state payroll databases showed seven employees identified to The Intercept as politically tied to Swanson receiving high salaries, and, sometimes, substantial raises in short periods. The salary of one employee described by three sources as an important Swanson supporter increased 127 percent in a recent six-year period. Another, who the Swanson campaign confirmed volunteered to help produce campaign materials, received a 130 percent salary increase in three years. Sources made clear that these seven individuals did not represent a complete list of Swanson’s political allies.
When asked whether those seven staffers’ compensation had any relation to their political activities, Wogsland, the office spokesperson, said they were all “highly-capable and talented individuals and valued members of our staff. Their pay raises and salaries are based exclusively on their talent, merit and responsibilities.” He added that their salaries were commensurate with those of their peers.
Since 2013, six of the seven identified staffers had made a combined 46 contributions to Swanson’s political campaigns, including $11,175 to her recently launched gubernatorial effort. State records show only one donation was made to any other Minnesota political campaign.
“If you wanted to be someone who went from being a low-level analyst answering phones to someone with an office and a secretary, you had to participate [in campaign events],” said one former staffer who worked closely with Swanson for years.
That employee’s account is substantially similar to the descriptions shared by current and former employees, most of them lawyers, who worked at the attorney general’s office during different periods, spanning from before Swanson’s first term in 2007 until today. Sources were reached independently of one another and worked in different divisions.
Linda McEwen, who worked at the state Capitol office as Swanson’s executive assistant from 2007 to 2009, said she directly witnessed employees engaged in political campaigning while there. McEwen was fired at the end of 2009, citing conflicts with Swanson over her mentor and former attorney general Mike Hatch’s role in office management. (She then went to work as the executive assistant to the chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as the Democratic Party is known in Minnesota, for the next six years.) McEwen told The Intercept that, during her tenure, she knew which employees were participating in campaign work, and she saw firsthand those individuals receive disproportionate promotions and pay raises.
“They’d recruit folks out of the consumer division, who were generally young and wanting to build their careers and connections in politics,” said McEwen, referring to staffers Swanson used to mobilize others. “I worked closely with Swanson, I was right across the hall from her office, and I would schedule these people to accompany her to campaign events.” McEwen thinks she herself was hired because she volunteered on Hatch’s gubernatorial campaign.
“There’s no question” that raises and promotions were tied to whether staffers were willing to work on campaign events, McEwen added. “I saw it directly, including for senior staff who were given raises beyond what other people were given because they were politically supportive and politically involved in her campaign,” she told The Intercept.
McEwen is now retired, and she said she’s in a place in her life where she feels she can speak out publicly. She said, “I always told myself that if she ever ran for governor I would come forward.”
Swanson spends unusually little on campaign staff. Her attorney general campaign committee, which has spent $660,000 since the beginning of 2014, does not report a single dollar of payroll or employee expense. In the current gubernatorial race, among the 10 candidates with the highest campaign expenditures, staff expenses account for about 25 percent of all campaign spending — an average of about $107,000 per candidate. Every one of those candidates reported significant staff costs — all, that is, except for Swanson, who again reported $0 in payroll or employee expense. This was despite spending nearly $470,000 overall, more than all but three other candidates.
Asked if Swanson maintains separate campaign staff, Stanoch, her campaign spokesperson, responded that her previous attorney general campaigns had been “volunteer-driven.” She did not address the present gubernatorial campaign.
After seeking comment from the attorney general’s office about the activities described above, The Intercept also received a communication from a private attorney representing unnamed clients at the office. He stated that “to the extent any of these individuals ever participated in the democratic process, whether in support of the Attorney General or any other candidate or cause, it was done on their time and not paid for by the government.” He noted that government employees are free to use “extracurricular time, vacation hours, lunch hours, etc.” as they wish. He added that his clients “are highly-credentialed, hard-working professionals” whose salaries are “commensurate with other similarly situated employees.” The Intercept requested an interview with the employees through their lawyer but did not receive a response prior to publication.
SWANSON’S CAMPAIGN FOR governor has been brief, but dramatic. Up until early June, she was running for re-election as attorney general. But after failing to win the DFL endorsement at a statewide convention, she abandoned that bid and jumped into the governor’s race at the last minute. (She lost the attorney general endorsement to a relatively unknown progressive candidate after opting not to address the delegates.) Two progressive candidates for governor emerged at that same convention: Erin Murphy, a former Minnesota House majority leader running on single-payer health care who scored the party’s formal endorsement; and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who is considered another strong liberal challenger. Swanson’s late entry into the race – one day before the state’s filing deadline for candidates and after the endorsement convention had passed — meant that party delegates never had a chance to weigh in on her candidacy.
But if she had hoped to sneak through the primary with little public scrutiny, those hopes were dashed when news broke in July that her running-mate, Rep. Rick Nolan, rehired a former legislative director to work on his 2016 re-election campaign just months after a group of female staffers reported him for routine sexual harassment. A subsequent leaked recording revealed Nolan discussing the “fragility” of white-collar women.
Following these revelations, progressive and feminist groups immediately called on Swanson to drop Nolan as her lieutenant governor, but she made no public comment for over 24 hours. This prompted Minnesota residents to take to Twitter to discuss other moments when their attorney general was missing in action, getting the hashtag #WhereIsLori to trend locally on the website.
Eventually, Swanson issued a statement on the matter, in which she condemned sexual harassment while reiterating her support for Nolan, who had apologized. Her campaign also suggested the accusations against Nolan were part of an effort to politically advance her gubernatorial opponents, sparking a fresh round of public outrage.
Swanson’s trajectory through Minnesota politics has been defined by unusually close ties to Mike Hatch, Minnesota’s previous two-term attorney general and three-time candidate for governor.
The two have been a team for decades. Swanson’s first job out of college in 1989 was working as an analyst for the state commerce department, where Hatch was commissioner. Impressed by her work, Hatch encouraged her to attend law school, and afterward hired her at his private law firm. In 1998, when Hatch launched his bid for attorney general, Swanson helped run his campaign. By 1999, 32-year-old Swanson was named deputy attorney general.
Hatch dramatically changed the culture of Minnesota’s attorney general’s office, which had formerly been one of the most highly regarded in the country, according to reports from people who worked there. Employees who worked under Hatch described him as a “foul-mouthed screamer and a bully” where any second-guessing of an order “could lead to a sudden loss of status with the management, an unwanted transfer, or being called into a meeting and offered a choice between resignation or dismissal.”
When Hatch left to run for governor in 2006, and Swanson ran to replace him as attorney general, staffers thought that breaking up the duo might lead to improvements within the office. But when Hatch lost, and Swanson won, Swanson’s first official move was to rehire her mentor back. She placed Hatch in charge of all complex litigation.
The continuation of the Hatch-Swanson relationship demoralized an office that was hoping for a fresh start. In her first 18 months, more than 35 percent of the rank-and-file attorneys quit or were fired. Swanson described the turnover as “healthy” and insisted morale was fine. She added that some attorneys who left “were not good fits” because they were not willing to work hard enough.
THE CULTURE OF fear that permeated the attorney general’s office under Hatch and Swanson prompted attorneys to launch a union drive in the spring of 2007. Employees reached out to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, a public-sector union that had backed Swanson during her campaign. When a majority of assistant attorneys general signed union cards and asked to meet with Swanson, she declined, saying her staff lawyers were not covered under the Public Employee Labor Relations Act. In response to a question from The Intercept, Wogsland cited two Minnesota statutes as evidence that employees working for the state attorney general can’t unionize. But the staff attorneys and AFSCME disputed the attorney general’s legal conclusions, countering that nothing in the law barred Swanson from meeting with a union representing her employees.
What followed was described by insiders as an ugly chapter of union busting. In 2008, three assistant attorneys general sent Swanson a letter on behalf of the organizing committee asking her to recognize “the will of the staff to be represented by a labor union.” The organizing cohort also asked Swanson to work with them to amend the Public Employee Labor Relations Act so that it would “unambiguously include” the 135 attorneys and other at-will professional staff working in her office. They pointed to the unionized attorneys in Hennepin, Ramsey, and St. Louis counties, as well as the unionized city attorneys in Minneapolis and St. Paul. They got no response and published their letter online.
According to local reports at the time, Swanson then circulated a staff memo that called the online letter “a political swipe” and charged the authors with bringing “embarrassment to this Office.” Swanson later accused AFSCME of ginning up fake turmoil in order to advance its agenda, and insisted, again, that her staff’s morale was good. Employees later said they were asked to sign petitions pledging loyalty to Swanson and disavowing the union effort. One employee who spoke to The Intercept said they were asked to sign such a letter.
Some staffers said they were fired for their union activities, the local news outlet Pioneer Press reported in 2007. One pro-union attorney was fired less than a month after being given a raise and a letter of commendation. When the employee asked why she was being dismissed, she was told “it was office policy not to give a reason why,” and was escorted out.
Swanson denied these accusations at the time. In interviews with The Intercept, staff close to Swanson recalled the attorney general seeking out intel on those who supported the union effort and then later terminating them without explanation. Swanson’s campaign did not directly respond to the union-busting allegation, but said, “the law simply does not allow for [unions] and as the chief legal officer of the state, the Attorney General must follow the law.”
Hatch, Swanson’s mentor at the time, at the time issued a statement disavowing any sort of union at the attorney general’s office. “The state must speak with one voice on legal matters,” he said. “A union is simply not compatible with the constitutional and fiduciary relationship of trust and confidence owed to the Attorney General.” Hatch dismissed the employees who spoke to reporters as “disgruntled” and “mud throwers.”
The union effort died.
SWANSON IS RUNNING for governor as a “proven progressive,” but former employees at the attorney general’s office said she complained privately about the modern Democratic Party moving too far left.
Sources who worked close to Swanson described an aversion to public appearances or statements that might suggest a too-liberal political affiliation. This included, they say, a reluctance to appear at political events in Minneapolis or St. Paul, out of concern that it would associate her with the cities’ progressive urban politics. Despite Minnesota legalizing gay marriage in 2013, Swanson notably did not join the more than a dozen other Democratic attorneys general in signing briefs supporting marriage equality the following year, and she declined to explain why. (Swanson ultimately declared her office’s support in 2015, two months before the Supreme Court made it the law of the land.)
Instead, her political image is maintained through a heavy focus on constituent services. Former lawyers told The Intercept that they spent substantial amounts of time authoring personalized responses to non-pressing constituent questions and complaints, particularly from rural parts of the state. Some lawyers said they felt this was a frustrating political exercise that furthered Swanson’s political goals while diverting work hours from the office’s core legal duties. This has been a longstanding concern. In 2009, the Minnesota Monthly quoted a former assistant attorney general who quit under Swanson saying, “If a lawyer is working on a $200 million case and is being told to write letters to people complaining about coupons misrepresenting the price of melons at Cub Foods, you begin to wonder if their time is being used wisely.”
Wogsland, the office’s spokesperson, defended this work. “We are extremely proud that we make it a priority to help people in need,” he told The Intercept. “Doing so enhances, not diminishes, the legal work of the office. There have unfortunately been some attorneys employed in the office over the years who believed they were too important to interact with the public.”
That’s not to say that the office of the attorney general steers clear of political lawsuits. Indeed, in the age of Donald Trump, Democratic attorneys general have honed the legal playbook advanced by Republican attorneys general under Barack Obama, filing case after case challenging the Trump administration’s policies.
But while Swanson’s campaign has strongly touted the role she’s played in the resistance, some political observers say she has been unusually slow to sue the federal government compared to her Democratic counterparts around the country. Since January 2017, Paul Nolette, a Marquette University political scientist, has tracked the number of lawsuits filed by Democratic attorneys general against the administration. With 15 such suits, “Swanson is near the bottom of the list, well behind small offices like Vermont and D.C.” which have filed 29 and 27 cases, respectively, Nolette told The Intercept. She “has also largely deferred taking the lead on multistate litigation,” Nolette added, noting that she has the power and legal authority to do so. “She has taken a different path than her predecessor a few years ago, Skip Humphrey, who was one of the most active [attorneys general] nationally during his time in office,” he said.
Minnesota legal observers have also criticized Swanson for filing big lawsuits, including against the Trump administration, that generate favorable press coverage, but that quickly flounder or settle once reporters have moved on.
“There was a relentless focus on media attention, getting the headline,” said Prentiss Cox, a longtime employee in the Minnesota attorney general’s office who now works as a consumer law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. Cox worked under Swanson when she was deputy attorney general, eventually leaving the office to teach law. After her 2006 election, she picked him to head an influential predatory lending task force. “If it wasn’t a headline, it wasn’t important,” he said.
Locals point to the Trump travel ban lawsuit brought by Washington state in February of last year, which Minnesota jumped quickly into as a plaintiff. Together, they won a temporary injunction, earning the state a slew of positive press. But six weeks later, Swanson quietly withdrew from the lawsuit.
“She’s never explained it,” said Kara Lynum, an immigration attorney in St. Paul. “We joined the Washington case and dropped out, and then she could have signed onto the Hawaii lawsuit which went to the Supreme Court, but she didn’t do that either,” Lynum added, referring to a second nationwide lawsuit against the travel ban.
Wogsland, the spokesperson for Swanson’s office, said “it made sense for Minnesota to monitor the litigation that moved forward (Hawaii) and be in a position to file an ‘as-applied’ challenge in the event that the order unconstitutionally applied to the people in the State of Minnesota.” He said Minnesota remains positioned to file such a challenge “if necessary and supported by the facts and the law.” (In June, the Supreme Court ruled against Hawaii, upholding the ban.)
One example her campaign has pointed to is Swanson’s 2012 lawsuit against Accretive Health, a voracious hospital debt collector that has since changed its name to R1 RCM.
After launching an investigation, Swanson’s office published a jaw-dropping six-volume report into Accretive’s practices in one Minnesota hospital system. The attorney general’s office prominently publicized the report online, an archived version of the website reveals. It detailed practices like patient bedside debt collection and mandatory meetings for emergency room personnel to learn that “their primary mission [was] the collection of money as opposed to the well-being of the patient.” The report described the hospitals coordinating with the firm to identify the easiest targets for increased collections. For example, one manager noted, “We need to get cracking on labor and delivery, there is a good chunk to be collected there.” Accretive ultimately negotiated a contract with the hospital system that delivered over $100 million annually to the collection firm.
Minnesota ultimately settled the case for $2.5 million and an agreementthat the company would delete Minnesota health data and not return to the state for up to six years, a moratorium that ends this November. An independent financial analyst noted at the time that the penalty had little financial impact on the company, which ended the quarter with a cash-balance of $214.5 million. The dramatic report, a copy of which has been independently obtained by The Intercept, is no longer available on the attorney general’s website, nor are other mentions of the case or its settlement. (Wogsland, the office spokesperson, said it’s been taken down because “the website contains information about current and recent cases and the Accretive matter is 6 years old.”)
Nevertheless, Swanson’s gubernatorial campaign has been presenting this Accretive episode as a reason to vote for her. Swanson referenced the Accretive investigation in her first TV ad, and Stanoch, the campaign spokesperson, told The Intercept that the attorney general “threw a Wall Street-owned corporation out of Minnesota for hounding patients for money while they were suffering medical emergencies in the hospital.”
Cox, the consumer law professor and former assistant attorney general, told The Intercept that he wouldn’t have spoken up about Swanson’s record four years ago, but that he feels compelled to do so in today’s political environment. He said, “It’s really important that we elect people who fundamentally care and support the public institutions that are under attack.”