A former staff member of Minnesota Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Lori Swanson came forward Saturday to say that she was tasked to do political work while on the clock of the state's chief legal office.
Kristen Olsen approached the Star Tribune on Saturday and said that as a lawyer in the attorney general's office, she was asked to research gas prices and health care during Swanson's 2006 race. The two projects seemed more like campaign duties than the work of the attorney general, Olsen said.
Olsen's employment in Swanson's office was verified by the Star Tribune, which also examined her contemporaneous notes from the two times she was asked to do research. Her notes indicate that there were other episodes when she received calls during the workday to volunteer for the campaign of Swanson and then-Attorney General Mike Hatch, who was running for governor at the time. Swanson was Hatch's hand-picked successor as attorney general.
One of Olsen's notes from October 2006 says: "Recent plummet in gas prices. Lori wants to make a public announcement on it. She'll investigate it if elected and prices go [up] after the election."
Swanson was on leave from the attorney general's office at the time to campaign.
"I wasn't sure it was really proper," said Olsen, who worked as a lawyer in the attorney general's office from 2000 to 2009, including a stint as a manager. She has since left the legal profession. She made a small donation to one of Swanson's gubernatorial opponents, state Rep. Erin Murphy, although she said she did not come forward about her experience in Swanson's office in order to help Murphy.
On Saturday, Swanson's campaign said in a statement, "We simply ask that you keep in mind some individuals you speak with are working for/supporting competing gubernatorial candidates."
Swanson, who is in the final days of campaigning before the primary election against fellow DFLers Murphy and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, was accused last week by a former aide of routinely using staffers to do political work on her behalf. The ex-aide, D'Andre Norman, alleged that despite a job ostensibly helping consumers settle disputes with utility companies, his real job was as a political handler who recruited employees to do political work.
Norman's allegation was broadly corroborated by six attorneys who also worked in the office and spoke to the Star Tribune, all of them describing a politically charged atmosphere in which loyalty was prized.
Swanson has rejected the accusations, saying Friday that no one in her office "engages in political activity on the clock of the state of Minnesota" and that promotions and raises are given based on merit and job responsibilities, not political work.
She took the extraordinary measure Friday of responding to Norman's charges by releasing records of his criminal charges to reporters via official e-mail from the attorney general's office. Ben Wogsland, a spokesman for the office, disseminated Norman's criminal record.
All but one of the charges had previously been dismissed in court.
Another former employee of the attorney general's office who asked not to have his name published to protect his current employment said Norman personally recruited him and his colleagues to participate in campaign-related activities, with the requests coming during work hours.
"While I could turn down requests for help with activities like county conventions or campaign mailer preparation, I felt pressure to participate," the former employee said.
Accuser: 'Following orders'
Norman sued Swanson on Friday, alleging that her office improperly released criminal records that had been expunged.
Wogsland, from the attorney general's office, provided case numbers that he said proved the records were not expunged. Norman was fired in 2014. That year he was also charged with insurance fraud, a charge that was dismissed after he met court conditions.
Norman's attorney, Marty Carlson, said his client was assured in 2014 by Hatch — Swanson's predecessor as attorney general and closest political ally — that he would have the records expunged. According to Norman, Swanson was on a speakerphone during the conversation.
Hatch did not return a phone call Saturday.
"I'm not a perfect person," Norman said in an interview with the Star Tribune last week.
As for his work for Swanson, he said, "I feel bad about it. I was following orders. But I did it. There were people who I helped get promoted. There were people I was involved getting forced out."
Asked about the propriety of disseminating Norman's criminal history, Wogsland said in an e-mail, "The attorney general's office has every right and duty to respond to false allegations with the facts in order to protect the integrity of the office and the attorney general in her official capacity."
Norman Ornstein, a Minnesotan who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said the line of what's proper and not proper in using elected office for political ladder-climbing can be hard to discern.
"Any elective office is inherently a political office, but you don't want to have the impression that the office itself is being exploited for political purposes," he said.