Hard-to-peg attorney general defined by those around her

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2008 - 9:24 PM

Which is the real Lori Swanson: Ardent consumer crusader or awkward politician?

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Atty Gen. Lori Swanson met with a group of consumer advocates at the Capitol.

Photo: Joey Mcleister, Star Tribune

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In a Hennepin County courtroom last month, a corporate lawyer urged a judge to throw out a lawsuit alleging insurance fraud against the elderly, arguing that the insurer had reached a settlement with the Commerce Department.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson defended the suit she had filed. She talked about Muriel Berglund, a retired farmer sitting in the courtroom, who was persuaded at age 81 to put money into an investment she couldn't touch without penalty for 15 years. While acknowledging the settlement, Swanson declared, "Justice trumps finality under the law."

It was the kind of stance that many Minnesotans expect from the attorney general. But it illustrated only one side of Swanson's complex reputation after a year-plus in office.

To some, she's a consumer champion who has targeted alleged scams against the elderly, mortgage fraud, cell-phone billing practices and dangerous Chinese toys.

To others, she's an awkward politician and micromanager who has driven off much of her staff and alienated part of a key DFL constituency, organized labor.

Swanson, 41, has assumed much of the agenda, some of the baggage and none of the public swagger of her predecessor and former boss, Mike Hatch. While Hatch relished announcing consumer lawsuits with fanfare, Swanson conducts business with little drama. Hatch often called reporters and sometimes called them bad names. Swanson seldom calls at all.

"Mike Hatch was always seeking publicity because he always had his eyes on higher office," said Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. Swanson shuns the limelight because "she is personally uncomfortable with it and doesn't see a career need to do it."

A lawyer who worked with Swanson when she was a top aide to Hatch recalled their contrasting styles.

"Mike would hold a press conference, and Lori would go out and do the work," said former Deputy Attorney General Corey Gordon.

Discord shapes reputation

Despite national coverage of Swanson's consumer actions, much of her Minnesota profile has been shaped by discord within her office over her style and agenda. The most serious complaint came this year from Assistant Attorney General Amy Lawler, 27, a new hire who accused Swanson of pressuring subordinates to compromise ethics in a zeal to file newsworthy consumer lawsuits.

In a March letter to Deputy Attorney General Karen Olson, Lawler said that at a meeting last fall Swanson noted that other attorneys general had sued foreclosure consultants and instructed Lawler to "find some defendants and file a similar lawsuit the following week." Lawler said in her letter that she questioned how a suit could be filed so quickly, "before even locating a defendant," and said Olson "brushed aside my concerns."

In an interview last week, Swanson denied impropriety, saying she provided Lawler with numerous complaints in Minnesota and elsewhere about two firms that Lawler later sued.

"This is an area I ran on," Swanson said. "I made no secret I was going to make a top priority of the foreclosure crisis."

Swanson lobbied for legislation, passed last year, that requires disclosure of mortgage broker fees and requires brokers to act in their client's best interest.

While Lawler says the lawsuits she eventually filed have merit, she questions a process that she says could lead to frivolous actions. She was placed on administrative leave, and Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles is conducting an investigation into her claims.

Union organizing is a hot spot

A more widespread source of tension stems from Swanson's opposition to efforts by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to unionize attorneys. Lawler was a union supporter.

The dispute erupted a few months into Swanson's term. "Four words disgust us today: 'AFSCME endorsed Lori Swanson,'" said Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, during an April 2007 meeting with reporters.

Swanson says state law prohibits a union of assistant attorneys general and cites opposition to it from former Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III, also a DFLer. Some other unions have supported her during the dispute.

To suggestions that she runs political risks by picking a fight with labor, Swanson replies: "I don't worry about AFSCME. I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to do my job and to look after the citizens, and if some people get feathers ruffled, that's OK with me."

The organizing dust-up reflects discontent in the office over Swanson's leadership. Current and former assistant attorneys general and others have described her as micromanaging and mistrusting her staff.

"A load of crap," replies former Deputy Attorney General Gordon, who now works with Hatch in private practice. He blamed complaints on lawyers "who view a public law firm as kind of a laid-back place."

More than a quarter of the attorneys present when Swanson took office in January 2007 have left. "I expect people to give it 110 percent and then some," she said. "There are some who are not cut out for that type of mission."

Too focused on details?

But a former top attorney in the office, Bradley Delapena, complained last year of "a lack of respect" for lawyers, recalling how they are required to answer citizen mail to the detriment of more important duties.

Swanson defends the practice. "When I was a deputy, I used to get the entire bucket of mail every day and go through it," she said. "It gives you a pretty good feel on where you ought to be focusing, what's on people's minds." Now she reads about 40 letters daily. "I usually do it at night."

Others say Swanson remains unusually attentive to details as attorney general.

James Neher, who retired recently from the office's tax division, recalls meetings where she demonstrated knowledge about his relatively low-profile specialty.

"She obviously spent some time reviewing the cases, knew the issues," he said. "I was very impressed."

Among other consumer actions, Swanson sued Sprint Nextel over its extension of contracts without the consent of customers when they made minor changes to their wireless plans. She continued a deal requiring Minnesota hospitals to charge uninsured patients no more than they charge insurance companies for the same services.

Swanson has made a mark for her pursuit of deferred annuity cases. Deferred annuities provide purchasers with a guaranteed payout after a number of years, but often carry a substantial penalty for early withdrawals, which could make them unsuitable investments for the elderly.

Swanson sued insurers on grounds that the annuities, when sold to some elderly people, were inappropriate or fraudulent under state law. In a settlement, Allianz Life Insurance Co. allowed more than 7,000 Minnesota senior citizens to claim refunds without penalties.

Swanson's efforts received coverage nationally and from the Sunday Telegraph in London.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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