Harsh charges flying in AG race

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 21, 2010 - 6:11 AM

GOP challenger points to "scandals"; incumbent questions his history.

The race for Minnesota attorney general exploded into dueling denunciations from the candidates Wednesday.

State Attorney General Lori Swanson turned up the heat in her campaign against Republican challenger Chris Barden, accusing him of making a career out of being an expert witness for accused sexual molesters and of frequently challenging accepted mental health practices with "missionary zeal."

Swanson's campaign released a 2-inch-thick packet of information on Barden that harshly criticized him and ignited a race that until now had garnered few headlines.

Barden launched his own attack on Swanson on Wednesday, using a news conference to go point-by-point through a series of previously reported accusations on how dozens of dissatisfied attorneys had left Swanson's office.

"Where else in the United States is there an attorney general who has had so many scandals?" Barden asked reporters. "Will the current office of attorney general be remembered as the most scandal ridden in Minnesota history?"

The exchange came a day after Barden was endorsed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and followed a campaign in which Swanson had so far largely ignored Barden.

Barden heatedly disputed Swanson's charges, saying she was continuing a pattern of smearing her opponents. "You will not find a lawyer with a better record than I have," said Barden. "There's absolutely no sanctions, there's no penalties [in my record] -- nothing at all."

But Brian Bergson, Swanson's campaign manager, said that Barden's record "compromises his ability to fairly evaluate cases involving a mental health component...that are frequently handled by the attorney general's office."

Swanson's campaign described Barden as having been on a 20-year "mission" to discredit certain types of mental health care, particularly repressed memory syndrome, which Barden has contended "doesn't happen." The Swanson campaign produced a 1998 letter co-signed by Barden and other medical experts that asked the Canadian minister of justice to conduct an inquiry "with a view to releasing... all those prisoners who would not have been convicted but for the testimony of 'recovered memories.'"

Volleys from both sides

The attorney general's campaign also said that Barden has been "rather consistent" in defending adults accused of sexual molestation. In one case, according to documents filed by Swanson's campaign, Barden defended a Catholic priest who claimed he was wrongly accused by a man who fabricated memories of child abuse. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the priest's conviction earlier this year, Barden said that "future reviewers will cringe at this science-illiterate opinion."

In a North Carolina case in 1997, the Swanson campaign produced documents showing that a judge had ruled that Barden "veered again and again outside the limits of reasonable inquiry" during a deposition in a health care case, and that "many of the questions asked by [Barden] were unreasonably argumentative."

Only last week Barden tried to spark interest in his campaign by releasing an internal poll that claimed 44 percent of the respondents did not know Swanson, a protégé of former state Attorney General and former DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch.

Barden has touted his educational background -- Pawlenty called him "one of the best educated" attorney general candidates ever in Minnesota. Barden's résumé includes a law degree from Harvard and a 22-year history in Minnesota as a licensed psychologist. Barden, who said he had lived in Utah caring for his mother-in-law, moved back to Minnesota three years ago but as recently as April told reporters he "didn't even know anybody over at the [state] Republican Party probably three months ago."

Bergson also released documents showing that Barden had attended several Tea Party rallies during the summer, and at one point co-hosted a breakfast for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. On his website, Barden stated that members of the Tea Party, a grass-roots conservative movement that has upended politics in many parts of the country, were "uniformly knowledgeable on a range of issues."

In taking his own aim at Swanson, Barden said the attorney general's office had been beset by a series of "scandals" and a "culture of dishonesty." He cited several examples, most of which had been made public in the past two years, that included charges by Paul Civello, a former head of the office's Medicaid fraud unit who said both Swanson and former Attorney General Hatch had mismanaged the unit. Civello said attorneys in the unit were diverted to cases that had little to do with Medicaid fraud, and instead focused on tasks intended to generate favorable publicity for the attorney general.

Reviving investigation

Barden also focused on Amy Lawler, a former staff attorney who was fired by Swanson. Lawler created headlines two years ago by painting an unflattering profile of the office, charging, among other things, that supervisors in Swanson's office pressured attorneys to falsify information in a consumer's affidavit to gain publicity for Swanson on consumer-protection cases. An investigation and a separate probe by the state legislative auditor cleared Swanson on many of the allegations, but Barden said the inquiries were limited and did not fully vindicate Swanson.

"She's been saying it for years, that she's been cleared," said Barden. But, he said, those who believed that "didn't read the actual documents."

Bergson dismissed Barden's claims. "Mr. Barden has a history of vicious name-calling. His conduct today is no different," Bergson said.

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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