A lawyer in the Minnesota Attorney General's office who has been an advocate for a union organizing effort has been placed on administrative leave, a few days after she openly raised ethical concerns about how several lawsuits were filed.

A spokesman for Attorney General Lori Swanson said Assistant Attorney General Amy Lawler was disciplined for failing to go through proper channels to voice her concerns, not for her union-related activity. In a letter to legislative leaders, Swanson, a DFLer, accused union leaders of attempting to "stir the pot" with the controversy as part of a campaign to organize attorneys in the office.

Lawler, who has worked for the office since November, did not return telephone calls on Tuesday but told the Associated Press that she was exploring her options. She said her suspension on Monday, first reported by the online newspaper MinnPost.com, serves as a "chilling message" to other attorneys who might consider speaking up about the way the office is run.

"I don't think this would have happened if I weren't active in the union-organizing effort," Lawler said.

Union leaders pledged legal support for her.

Talked to media

Stories about Lawler's concerns were reported last week on Minnesota Public Radio and MinnPost.com. In an interview afterwards, Lawler said the attorney general's office is obsessed with the union mobilization, describing an atmosphere of being "bombarded with anti-union messages."

Lawler had also raised concerns about the motives the office might have had in pursuing two lawsuits that she filed; she said she felt as if the suits were part of an effort to gain publicity on consumer-protection cases for Swanson. She said a supervisor later told her that the suits would stand up to scrutiny if they were challenged as being frivolous.

"That's the standard, we'll file lawsuits as long as we won't face ethical sanctions for them. That's a very low bar," Lawler said in the interview. But she said she believed the suits she filed had merit.

Swanson, who took office in January 2007, was not available for an interview Tuesday. However, Deputy Attorney General Karen Olson said Lawler was placed on paid administrative leave for failing to register her concerns about any possible ethical violations with the Minnesota Board of Professional Responsibility, required under an attorney's rules of professional conduct.

In a letter to Lawler, Olson said she expected the assistant attorney general to provide a letter by the end of the week detailing her allegations. Olson said Lawler had recently sent her an e-mail assuring her that she did not have ethical concerns about the cases.

"This is not a punishment for someone speaking to the media, nor does that have anything to do about any union-organizing efforts," Olson said. "I am concerned that someone has gone public and indicated that this office is bringing lawsuits that are not meritorious, that violate ethical rules. That contradicts written and verbal statements by the same person making these allegations."

The dispute comes at a time when the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union has been aggressively pursuing an organizing effort in the attorney general's office. Swanson has resisted the union, as have previous attorneys general.

Swanson has contended that state law prohibits assistant attorneys general from unionizing and on Monday produced a briefing paper to legislative leaders outlining her concerns. She said assistant attorneys general operate much like aides to legislators or in the governor's office.

"It is a common tactic for organizers to 'stir the pot' and get louder in their rhetoric as an organizing effort falters," she wrote.

Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5, said that it appeared Lawler had been punished for speaking out about her concerns and that the union was consulting legal counsel about assisting her. "Who will uphold our Constitution if Minnesota's top lawyer expects her own employees to surrender their right to free speech and assembly?" Seide asked.

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636 Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210