A day after a former aide accused Attorney General Lori Swanson of using her elected office to advance her political career, Swanson responded Friday by releasing the aide’s criminal record — in e-mails from the attorney general’s office.
In response, the ex-aide, D’Andre Norman, sought a restraining order against Swanson. He contends some of the convictions Swanson made public had been expunged by court order.
The remarkable sequence of events came just days before Swanson, Minnesota’s three-term attorney general, will compete in the DFL primary for governor.
Swanson strongly denied the allegations from Norman, who said in an interview late Thursday that he was hired after Swanson’s election as attorney general in 2006 for a job in the consumer services division. But he said his real job was political handler, alleging that Swanson tasked him with recruiting political volunteers and reporting back to her about potentially disloyal employees.
Talking to reporters after a DFL gubernatorial matchup Friday, Swanson said it’s not true.
“In the attorney general’s office we have rules, we have policies, and one of those rules is nobody engages in political activity on the clock of the state of Minnesota,” Swanson said. “To my knowledge, nobody has engaged in political activity on the clock of the state of Minnesota.”
Ben Wogsland, a spokesman for the attorney general who is an employee of the state and not the campaign, spent part of his day Friday defending Swanson and criticizing Norman, even as she was being accused of improperly using office resources for her political career.
After Swanson’s office released details of Norman’s criminal history, his attorney filed a lawsuit and sought a temporary restraining order against Swanson, saying she improperly released the records.
Norman’s allegations about Swanson politicizing the office were first published in the online news outlet the Intercept, which also cited anonymous sources who said they felt pressured to do political work and feared retribution for not doing so. The Star Tribune interviewed six attorneys who worked in the office — two who were willing to be identified and four who asked not to be named, and all of whom corroborated the impression of a politically charged atmosphere in which loyalty was prized above all.
Swanson also said employees were not given raises or promotions based on their political allegiances.
“People who get promotions and raises in the attorney general’s office get them purely on merit, based on skill and based upon their work responsibilities for the office, period, end of story,” she said.
Swanson’s office also questioned the Intercept’s motives in publishing the allegations against her, attempting to draw a link between a financial backer of the site and several companies that have been sued by Swanson’s office.
Norman said he came forward because for years his conscience bothered him about the work he did for Swanson. It included recommendations to terminate staff who were not showing political loyalty to Swanson, he said.
“I’m telling the truth and they’re lying and they’re supposed to be our leaders,” Norman said, referring to Swanson and former Attorney General Mike Hatch, who preceded Swanson in the office and has been among her top political allies. Attempts to reach Hatch for comment Friday were unsuccessful.
Swanson is locked in a tight three-way DFL primary race with state Rep. Erin Murphy and U.S. Rep Tim Walz.
Allegations that Swanson has operated a politically charged office are not new. Secretary of State Steve Simon, a former DFL lawmaker and at one time a lawyer in the attorney general’s office, presented allegations to the Legislative Audit Commission in 2008, including charges that attorneys were pressured to issue investigative demands without merit; insert unsubstantiated information in an affidavit; find defendants to help the attorney general bring lawsuits; and post comments favorable to the office and Swanson on the internet during office hours.
After a “preliminary assessment,” the Office of the Legislative Auditor reported back to lawmakers that, “We did not find a basis for further investigation.”
Attorney Marty Carlson, who worked in the attorney general’s office from 2004 to 2008, brought his concerns about how cases were managed to the Office of the Legislative Auditor during its assessment.
He said he was pressured by Swanson to insert false information into consumer affidavits and take other steps “that didn’t sit right to me.” In one situation, Carlson said he saw what he believed was a preferential payment to a consumer who cooperated with the attorney general’s office, a violation of policy, he said.
For both Swanson and Hatch, “politics was always primary” in how they handled cases, Carlson said.
Carlson said he decided to leave shortly after the auditor announced he would not continue the investigation.
“Ultimately, I just figured they were going to come after me. So I left voluntarily before that happened,” he said.
Norman left the attorney general’s office in 2014 after he was charged with insurance fraud, a case that was eventually dismissed. He worked for a time with the Service Employees International Union, which has endorsed Murphy; Norman said he was not involved in the union’s political operation, and the union said he no longer works there.
Norman told the Star Tribune that about 80 percent of the work he did was political in nature. He said it was often at the behest of Hatch.
Norman said Swanson and Hatch used him during a bitterly fought campaign to prevent lawyers from unionizing.
Norman said he was asked to remove pro-union materials from office bulletin boards and spy on employees, including briefly putting listening devices in the desks of suspected union organizers.
He said he recruited others in the office who were willing to do Swanson’s political work, including going to events, stuffing envelopes and making phone calls, all done at the attorney general’s State Capitol office or Hatch’s law firm — often during office hours.
Wogsland, Swanson’s spokesman, said Norman “was not hired for political purposes, nor was he paid by the office to be a ‘recruiter.’ His job responsibilities for the state did not include political activities.”
Prentiss Cox was the head of the attorney general’s consumer division and is now a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. He recalled being recruited to do political work during the Hatch years — when Swanson was a key deputy — and declining multiple times. He finally relented and was surprised to enter a room with 50 people, many of them colleagues, stuffing envelopes. It was not during work hours, he said, but he was still bothered to see so many lawyers for the state’s chief legal officer doing political work, and he left.
“Then they asked again. I said ‘Hell no,’ ” he said. “It was really troubling.”