St. Paul’s newly appointed city attorney on Friday filed suit against state Rep. John Lesch, claiming that he has defamed her to Mayor Melvin Carter and has engaged in an ongoing attempt to smear her professional reputation.
In an unusually public altercation for two high-ranking government officials, the lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court by City Attorney Lyndsey Olson alleges that Lesch, a DFL representative from St. Paul, began a campaign to attack Olson’s credentials and depose her from the job soon after Carter announced in December that he was appointing her to the position.
According to the lawsuit, the campaign has continued, with Lesch making statements to Olson’s colleagues, city employees and other elected and appointed officials suggesting she has engaged in misconduct and that he is secretly trying to “take her out.”
According to the lawsuit, Lesch, who worked in the St. Paul City Attorney’s Office for about 15 years, previously applied for the job Olson now has.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Lesch, who said he was not interested in the position, said his inquiry into the selection process was out of a concern about openness in government and suggested the lawsuit was a “frivolous use of the law to fight a political battle.
“If Ms. Olson was the victim of gender discrimination I would be fully supportive of her seeking justice. My inquiry of Mayor Melvin Carter had nothing to do with her gender, it had everything to do with transparency in government.”
Lesch’s statement added: “Mayor Melvin Carter and his staff should be embarrassed and should apologize to the taxpayers and the courts for wasting resources. So much for the most transparent Mayor in St. Paul history — that ended quickly.”
Lesch’s letter to Carter questioned the selection process and cast doubt on Olson’s work history with what the lawsuit claims are “several false and defamatory statements and innuendos” about Olson’s experience as an attorney for the Minnesota National Guard.
In response to the lawsuit, Carter’s office released a statement: “I have full faith and confidence in Lieutenant Colonel Olson’s ability to serve as St. Paul’s City Attorney.”
While Lesch is the defendant, in fact, much of the lawsuit paints an unflattering picture of military culture in general and the Minnesota Guard in particular.
Lesch, 45, is a former member of the Minnesota National Guard. In addition to her defamation claim, Olson, 41, who is a lieutenant colonel in the Minnesota Army National Guard, alleged in the suit that she experienced repeated sexual harassment and gender discrimination while in the Guard, including a superior officer’s “repeated and unwelcome sexual advances.”
Olson is the first woman to serve as the general counsel and deputy staff judge advocate for the Minnesota National Guard.
“In an environment that has historically been, and remains male-dominated, Ms. Olson rose through the ranks of the Minnesota National Guard due to her outstanding performance and service,” the lawsuit stated. “ ... Despite, or indeed because of, Ms. Olson’s outstanding military service and awards, her military experience also subjected her to harassment and gender discrimination.”
The suit alleges that “little was done” to address a superior officer’s unwelcome sexual advances and instead, Olson “quickly became the target of repeated gender discrimination and retaliation” that escalated over time by a small group of men in the Guard.
The Minnesota Guard said Friday it does not have a record of a formal complaint related to sexual harassment filed by Olson but issued a general statement regarding its policies on sexual harassment.
“It is imperative to the protection of Minnesota National Guard soldiers and the trust communities place in the National Guard that policies be enforced as part of a clear statement that sexual harassment and misconduct will not be tolerated,” said Minnesota National Guard Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Jon Jensen.
The lawsuit also alleges a “male only” group secretly schemed to plan her removal from her job with the Guard.
While Lesch and Olson never worked together directly in the Guard, the lawsuit said they knew many of the same people.
Referencing Guard experiences, Lesch’s letter to Carter 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.”
Asked to characterize their service, the Guard said it could only confirm that Lesch is a former member of the Guard. As for Olson, the Guard said she “continues to add tremendous value to the Minnesota National Guard.”
In an interview Friday, Olson said she recognized that coming forward with a lawsuit brought certain perils, particularly since she still is a member of the Guard, which she said she loves and believes is changing its culture to be more inclusive. She said she told her city staff she felt compelled to address what she said were significant grievances, but didn’t want their work overshadowed by what she called “the Lyndsey Show.”
“If I throw my hands up and walk away, who’s going to be there?” she said. “I’m not walking away from that.”
Staff writer James Walsh contributed to this story.