Rep. John Lesch wants a judge to dismiss a defamation lawsuit the St. Paul city attorney brought against him last month, arguing in a motion that as a state legislator, his speech is protected.
In the lawsuit, filed Feb. 16 in Ramsey County District Court, City Attorney Lyndsey Olson alleged that Lesch began a campaign to attack her credentials and depose her from her job soon after Mayor Melvin Carter announced he was appointing her to the position.
Marshall Tanick, Lesch’s attorney, said Friday that what Lesch said about Olson is protected under the “speech or debate” clause of the Minnesota Constitution, which protects legislators from being sued for things they do in their work as legislators.
“We feel that Rep. Lesch was acting in a legislative capacity in connection with concerns over issues that might arise at the Legislature or that would affect his constituency,” Tanick said.
Lesch, a DFLer who represents St. Paul, wrote a letter to Carter on Minnesota House of Representatives letterhead Jan. 3 expressing concerns about the mayor’s hiring process for department heads and casting doubt on Olson’s work history. In the letter, Lesch accused Olson of being “a prosecutor who would sacrifice justice in pursuit of a political win — even going so far as to commit misconduct to do so.”
In addition to the argument under the “speech or debate” clause, the motion to dismiss argues that Lesch’s speech is protected by the First Amendment and that Olson’s complaint failed to specify what exactly Lesch said or wrote that was defamatory.
Lesch worked in the St. Paul City Attorney’s Office for about 15 years, and also served in the Minnesota National Guard, where Olson is the first woman to serve as general counsel and deputy staff judge advocate. The two never worked together directly in the Guard but knew many of the same people, according to the lawsuit.
Olson’s attorney, Lisa Lamm Bachman, said Friday that it’s difficult to provide a response to the motion before the defense’s full legal argument has been laid out. But she said Lesch’s allegation of misconduct by Olson “is in and of itself defamatory.”
Bachman also questioned the use of the “speech or debate” clause.
“I’d be very curious to see how it applies in this case,” she said. “Just because you put a defamatory statement on your legislative letterhead does not immediately trigger immunity.”