ST. PAUL, Minn. — Retiring Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan is facing questions surrounding his handling of a former top staffer accused of harassing and groping young female staffers.
MinnPost reported Thursday that the Democrat's former legislative director, Jim Swiderski, was allowed to leave the job rather than be fired after women came forward with complaints about his conduct. Several former staff members, requesting anonymity to protect their careers, told the online news site that Swiderski would frequently make inappropriate comments. One woman said the legislative director groped her often.
But months after he exited the office, Nolan's 2016 re-election campaign hired Swiderski to work remotely on the campaign.
Nolan and chief of staff Jodie Torkelson confirmed in statements to MinnPost that Swiderski was "separated" from the job and briefly worked on the 2016 campaign. Nolan told MinnPost "in hindsight" it was a mistake to hire Swiderski to the campaign.
In a statement later Thursday, Nolan said he has "zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior" in the workplace.
A cellphone number listed for Swiderski did not accept voicemail. Torkelson told MinnPost that Swiderski had denied the allegations.
Nolan is leaving Congress after three hard-fought victories in the northeastern Minnesota swing district that has been among the most expensive House races in the country. But questions surrounding his leadership could affect next month's close three-way Democratic primary for governor; Attorney General Lori Swanson just made Nolan her running mate last month.
Swanson's campaign staff did not respond to a request for comment.
Minnesota has repeatedly been in the spotlight as the #MeToo movement has swept high-profile men out of power. Sen. Al Franken resigned in January after at least eight women accused him of sexual misconduct. And two state lawmakers were forced to resign after being accused by several women of inappropriate behavior.
A former Nolan employee told MinnPost that Swiderski, then in his mid-60s, took an interest in her when she joined as a 20-year-old intern in 2013. She said the former legislative director first gave her assignments, then started grabbing her hips and rubbing up against her. She said he eventually would grope her in the office once a week or more, and invite her out to dinner or drinks.
A former Nolan staffer told the AP in an interview that she reported Swiderski to top officials in Nolan's office — Torkelson and district director Jeff Anderson — after a colleague told her she had been victimized by Swiderski. The staffer requested anonymity for fear of retribution.
Joe Radinovich, Nolan's campaign manager in 2016, is now running for his seat in Congress, told AP that he hired Swiderski but said he promptly fired him when he learned of the allegations. Radinovich said senior leadership in Nolan's office recommended Swiderski for the job, but he could not recall whether it was Anderson, Torkelson or Nolan.
"It's hard for me to say precisely who encouraged me. It would have come about from senior leadership in the federal office," he said.