Swanson’s gov bid wounded by former deputy’s allegations

Associated Press file

The DFL candidates for governor are debating on MPR News this morning and it’s not too hard to figure out that attorney general Lori Swanson, whose last-minute entry into the race roiled the primary waters, is going to be the target of her opponents.

They likely smell blood in the water following a damning story from The Intercept that Swanson used state employees to perform campaign work. It also said Swanson supporters in the office got larger raises and supporters of other politicians were fired.

A spokesperson dismissed the initial story as “categorically false” but other former employees contacted The Intercept, identifying Swanson ally D’Andre Norman as the person who pressured them.

“It was all true, unfortunately,” Norman subsequently told The Intercept in a second article. “Nothing in there was not right and correct.”

As with many things Swanson related, the story includes the fingerprints of former attorney general Mike Hatch.

Hatch hired Norman into the attorney general’s office, Norman nominated Hatch at a party convention when he was seeking the governor’s office (clearing the way for Swanson’s rise), Hatch gave him “consumer analyst” and “mediator” titles in the consumer services division, but expected his work to be “mostly political,” Norman tells The Intercept.

Hatch, whose own bid for the governor’s office was derailed by a last-minute story and gaffe, did not return the news organization’s call seeking comment.

“Any time Lori needed someone to do any staffing at her events, or meet people at conventions or fundraisers, or anything that was all politically related, she relied on me,” he said. “Many times she called me personally on my cell phone. If she needed 30 to 40 people, I got it done.”

To get it done, Norman went after staff and attorneys in almost every department, though most recruits were young people working in the consumer services division. Norman said he approached staff members individually, and he asked division supervisors for volunteer suggestions. “Every time I approached anyone, especially the people who were charged with leading different divisions, when I came to talk to them, they always knew — or assumed — I was speaking on Lori’s behalf,” he said. “I was not questioned.”

Norman said he also recruited staffers out of the Medicaid fraud division, where heightened caution was required. “We had to be really careful, because half the budget came from the federal government,” he said, noting that avoiding the scrutiny of the federal inspector general was a serious concern. Two additional sources who previously worked in the Medicaid division also said that volunteers were recruited from there. Those sources asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. Swanson’s office did not respond to a question about whether volunteers were ever recruited from that unit for Swanson’s political events.

Other former staffers came forward after The Intercept’s first story on Monday, confirming that they felt pressured to work on her campaign.

“It’s not like if you did campaign work, you’d automatically be promoted,” Thomas Olsen, a former employee, said. “But they were so obviously correlated to everyone who worked there.”

The Intercept said Norman was also critical in quashing a movement in the attorney general’s office to form a union.

And Norman said people who supported politicians Swanson didn’t like were targeted.

“A red flag would be if someone would be a [former lawmaker, now secretary of state] Steve Simon supporter,” Norman said. “We would fire people who said they’re ‘not political’ or supported the wrong people.”

In 2008, a lawyer in Swanson’s office complained of ethical violations. Deputy Attorney General Karen Olson was suspended suspended, then fired, Amy Lawler, who was also involved in union organizing efforts in the office. [Updated to correct previous inaccuracy]

Norman said after that, Swanson directed him not to hire any more Harvard graduates.

In the eight situations Olson Lawler described, MPR News confirmed two particular incidents with other people in the office, The Intercept said.

“I think it’s important that I’m not the only one having these concerns. A lot of people have concerns with the office,” Lawler told MPR’s Tim Pugmire at the time. “And it’s really a disservice that the office isn’t addressing the huge number of concerns that other people have.”

Nonetheless, Swanson rose to become a powerful figure in the DFL.

So The Intercept asked an important question. How?

“That’s a really good question,” Norman said, noting that speaking out “makes a lot of people scared.” He said that after people had seen several attempts to speak out fail spectacularly in 2008, they’d begun to believe Swanson was untouchable.

Following Simon’s calls for closer scrutiny of the attorney general’s office, the legislative auditor considered launching a formal investigation, but ultimately decided not to do so after conducting a narrow, preliminary assessment.

“After personally seeing Lori get past a lot of threats of investigations and audits,” Norman said he started to assume that anyone who spoke up would fail to see Swanson face any consequences, and would themselves get ruined in the process.

“It was kind of crazy, because they were all telling the truth,” he said of those who spoke to the media about ethical concerns and union busting a decade ago.

Norman suggests he knows what’s coming now after speaking out against a well-connected politician in Minnesota.

“I am willing to speak under oath or take a lie detector test,” he said. “And I guarantee if others were forced to speak under oath, the truth would come out immediately.”

In an interview with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer this morning, The Intercept reporter Rachel Cohen said she has had no communication with Swanson’s gubernatorial challengers, dismissing Swanson’s assertion that her stories are politically motivated.

“Are you still being contacted by former employees?” Wurzer asked.

“Yes,” Cohen said.

Correction: (Aug. 10, 2018) An earlier version of this blog post misidentified the person fired from the Attorney General’s office.