Organizing flap in AG's office gets murkier

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2008 - 11:17 AM

The controversy over unionizing the office has degenerated into union rifts and insinuations.

Continuing turmoil in the state attorney general's office has produced a rift among union leaders and is leading to suggestions that an unsuccessful former candidate for the office may be involved in a divisive movement to unionize the office.

For nearly a year, Attorney General Lori Swanson's office has been roiled by complaints of low morale, numerous departures and an atmosphere of intimidation. An attempt to unionize the office has led to charges that lawyers and others active in the effort have been dismissed for their union activity.

Most recently, an assistant attorney general who was active in union organizing was suspended last week after charging that Swanson and her aides had pressured subordinates into compromising ethical situations.

The latest controversies led Swanson to issue a 15-page written response calling the attempts to unionize her office illegal. Though she received union endorsements during her DFL campaign in 2006, Swanson said union organizers had resorted to "shrill name-calling" and were attempting to "stir the pot" because their efforts were failing.

Even within organized labor, the ongoing feud has inspired divisions. The union leading the organizing attempts, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, has come under attack.

In an unusual move last week, a sister AFSCME affiliate in Minnesota sided with Swanson, and said in a letter it did not support "the tactics or position" of AFSCME Council 5 director Eliot Seide, who, it said, was misinterpreting state law.

'Things have escalated'

Steve Giorgi, the assistant director of AFSCME Council 65, representing mostly outstate public employees, said that while union organizing had been attempted previously at the attorney general's office, "under this attorney general, things have escalated." Employees in the attorney general's office were "clearly exempt" from being organized into a union under state law, he said.

Giorgi's union has been joined by several others, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 292, that have backed Swanson. But in letters supporting Swanson, most of the unions have not specifically been critical of the union attempting to organize her office.

"Thanks for the excellent job," wrote Harry Melander, executive secretary of the St. Paul Building and Construction Trades Council.

The origins of the uprising in Swanson's office are also disputed. Amy Lawler, an assistant attorney general who was placed on leave after raising "ethical concerns" about office policies, said some in Swanson's office believed that former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza was behind the union organizing in an attempt to politically embarrass Swanson.

A former DFL candidate for attorney general, Entenza dropped out of the 2006 race after his private investigation of former Attorney General Mike Hatch -- Swanson's longtime mentor -- came to light.

In an e-mail Wednesday, Entenza dismissed any suggestion of his involvement. "I have not played any role in a union organizing campaign, but I strongly support the right of employees to be represented by a union if they want to be," he said.

Swanson's office declined comment on any suggestion Entenza has played a role.

'About rights, not politics'

Lawler said in an interview that she was hired in November and was taken to coffee by Chuck Roehrdanz, an attorney in the office's medical fraud division, who tried to explain why unionizing the office was a bad idea.

"[He said], 'I don't know if you've followed this Entenza character,'" said Lawler, adding that Roehrdanz then told her that Entenza "was probably behind this to try to somehow get back at [Swanson] or something, to try to take her down. It was a very pointed -- he was very accusatory," Lawler said.

A spokesman for Swanson's office released a statement from Roehrdanz which disputed some of Lawler's account but did not address whether he had discussed Entenza. A spokesman for Swanson said Roehrdanz would not be available for further comment.

An AFSCME Council 5 spokesperson denied that Entenza was behind the efforts. "This organizing effort is about workers' rights, not politics," said the spokesperson, Jennifer Munt.

In a letter last week to her superiors outlining her concerns, Lawler had listed a series of incidents -- all of them involving unnamed office employees -- in which she said Swanson or her lieutenants placed workers in predicaments that "rob the office of its moral force."

In one instance, Lawler said, a lawyer was asked to issue a civil investigative demand against a company when the attorney did not believe they had proper cause to do so. The attorney, she said, refused and later resigned.

In her letter, Lawler asked to return to work and suggested "that we begin an open and honest dialogue about what can be done to improve the office."

In a lengthy response, the attorney general's office refuted Lawler's claims and said she was "casually tossing around loaded words" without identifying specific cases or naming individual employees.

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

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