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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Sound familiar? Hatch in '99

From the archives of Minnesota Lawyer, June 28, 1999, six months into Mike Hatch's first term as attorney general of Minnesota.

AG’s handling of staff reductions questioned

Some decry ‘climate of fear,’ but AG's spokesperson says transition pains are normal

By Brian Becker / Minnesota Lawyer
June 28, 1999

While some personnel changes were expected when Mike Hatch was elected Minnesota’s first new attorney general in 16 years, a number of current and former staffers are unhappy with the spate of firings and resignations that have marked the first six months of his tenure.

Since January, nearly 100 attorneys, investigators and support staff have been fired, resigned or otherwise left the office.

Observers say they cannot remember a time when so many staff members have been forced out. One employee said morale in the office is “pretty low and getting lower.” Another said that a “climate of fear” currently pervades the office.

Several former assistant AG’s told Minnesota Lawyer that their terminations were “abrupt,” “curt,” and came with little or no explanation.

One former staff attorney remarked that she still doesn’t understand why she was let go. “All I know is that I got phone call one day and was told to go up to [the Attorney General’s Office at the Capitol] where I was informed I no longer had a job. I had to give them my keys right then. I was told I could not return to the office and that if I had any personal items in the office I would have to pick them up later, after hours, with an escort. "

Hatch and Chief Deputy AG John Stanoch were unavailable for comment, but office spokesperson Leslie Sandberg described the departures as part of an overall “reorganization plan.” She said that while some people have been fired, many of the individuals who left did so voluntarily.

“Some people have seen this as an opportunity for a change,” she noted, “this is public life and people don’t stay here forever.”

Sandberg nevertheless acknowledged that the recent months have been a “difficult period.”

“Our hearts go out to those people [who were fired],” she said, “but we tried to deal with the situation and the reorganization in the most respectful way possible.”

The AG’s office currently employs approximately 220 attorneys and has a total workforce of about 500.

No explanation
During his campaign, Hatch promised he would downsize the AG’s office by eliminating a number of upper-level policymaking positions.

When Hatch first took office, the ax fell immediately on four assistant AGs who worked on the state’s tobacco settlement. (A fifth assistant AG who worked on the settlement left on his own.)
However, Hatch’s cuts have reached much deeper than some expected, affecting a wide range of departments, including criminal, tax, health and education.

What seemed to upset former staffers who talked with Minnesota Lawyer most was that they felt that they were not given an adequate explanations for their terminations. For example, when one former AG asked why she was being fired, she said she was told simply – “shifting priorities.”

“I asked them several times what they meant,” she observed, “but they never gave me any kind of concrete answer.”

Sandberg declined to offer any specifics on how the termination decisions were made. She said questions about why some people were fired and others were not were “inappropriate.” Sandberg was unable to say whether more firings are planned in the near future.

Several former assistant AGs remarked they believe that the current winnowing process has a larger political purpose for Hatch. They speculated that Hatch is planning to run for governor and that one of the planks in his platform will be that he reduced the size of government.

“[Hatch] already says that he cut the size of the Commerce Department and saved taxpayers a half million bucks,” said one former assistant AG, “whether that’s true or not I don’t know. But I do know that firing of some truly talented lawyers [at the AG’s Office] with impeccable credentials and years of experience is not going to make the office more effective.

Other observers asserted that at lest some of the departures came as a result of Hatch’s difficulty in dealing with the “independent thinkers” or people with differing opinions. Several sources recounted a meeting in which an attorney disagreed with Hatch’s assessment of a particular case and was later fired.

“All [this attorney] did was represent the client-agency’s point of view. … That firing sent a chill throughout the office,” said one former staffer.

“I think he’s micromanaging the office,” stated another ex-assistant AG. “He’s apparently decided that he, and not the agency-clients, is going to be making policy decisions about pending cases. And anybody who might not be willing to do his bidding will be forced out. This certainly isn’t how things were done under Humphrey.”

Office morale
Whatever Hatch’s reasons, several current and former AG employees said that the firings have had a palpable effect on office morale.

Staffers are afraid because they “are not sure what is going to happen,” said one source.

“I think he has deliberately created an environment where people feel as if they could be fired at any moment,” said another. “And I think that is a terrible way to manage an office,” he added.

Sandberg said that she understands that some people may be upset and that “no one is ever happy when things like this occur,” but noted that changes in personnel are bound to happen with a change in administration.

Approximately half of the vacancies have been filled, Sandberg said. Forty-eight positions will be eliminated.

“Personally I think that you are going to see the office get smaller as time goes by,” said one attorney earlier in the year. “I think his real agenda here is political and what does that say about his priorities. He is supposed to be concerned about the citizens of this state, but he may be more concerned with appearances.” ...

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