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Saturday, April 28, 2007

This looks like a prior Hatch purge

Something clicked when I saw Attorney General Lori Swanson's comment in the press that the departures and the way they were being handled was just a normal transition. And then I realized what it was: Swanson has only been part of one other transition of power at the AG's Office before -- when Hatch took over in 1999.

I recall that transition well. I became editor of Minnesota Lawyer right about the time that Hatch was elected to his first term as AG. Skip Humphrey had vacated the AG's Office to pursue a gubernatorial bid, and Hatch, a fellow DFLer, was elected to replace him. Everyone initially thought the transition would not be too bad because both Humphrey and Hatch were from the same party. What followed was a bloodletting on an unprecedented scale. Somewhere around 100 people lost their jobs.

Of course, Humphrey had been there a very long time, so one could argue that change and reshaping an office can be a positive thing to revitalize an organization (although 100 people in an office that size strikes me as excessive.) But what really bothered me was the way these firings were handled. The callousness and lack of empathy for how these people would feel being thrown out on the street after years of service in such an abusive fashion.

When Dan Heilman, the Minnesota Lawyer reporter covering this story, came to me about a month ago with the ruminations he had heard about the situation at the AG's Office, the only part of the story that I found shocking was the allegations from sources that Hatch and Swanson were engaged in union busting. Allegations that a former DFL candidate for governor and a DFL attorney general were taking a sledgehammer to a union? You've got to be joking, I thought. (Of course it has yet to be shown how much merit those accusations have, but the union is certainly having a labor-related disagreement with the AG’s Office. I am still hopeful that Swanson was not directly involved if strong-arm tactics were used.) But, while the union angle was a complete surprise to me, the brutality of the transition was par for the course when Hatch is involved.

We have been able to use the new blog technology to facilitate the reporting of this story. It’s a hard to stifle such a story now. However, it is quite telling if, in fact, Hatch did resort to trying to corrupt the blogging process by doing the electronic version of stuffing the ballot box. Such machine-style tactics have no place in the real world today -- and certainly no place in the virtual world. Hatch may be the first former attorney general in the state’s history guilty of forcing others into involuntary bloggitude.

In any event, I am going to post below an extremely large excerpt from the story Minnesota Lawyer published in June 1999 on the effect on the staff of Hatch taking over the AG’s office. I think you will find the story eerily similar to what is going on now. In fact, you could change a couple of names and run this 1999 story as a news piece on the current happenings at the AG’s Office. I apologize in advance for the length of the post.

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.” ...

Hatch's legendary temper

From today's Pioneer Press:

In interviews, several former top lawyers from the office linked the wave of departures to Swanson's decision to put former Attorney General Mike Hatch back on the office payroll.

At least nine current and former assistant attorneys general have told the Pioneer Press that the stream of departures and dismissals since January is indelibly linked to Swanson's decision to return Hatch to the office. Former employees accuse Hatch, who now works out of Swanson's old 14th-floor office in downtown St. Paul, of exerting too much control.

Hatch's red-hot temper is the stuff of office lore. [Bob Stanich, a former high level attorney at the AG's office who left in 2002] described being called into Hatch's office one day when Hatch complained of spotting an assistant attorney general reading a newspaper in the library during a lunch break.

"He called the man lazy and then went off on a couple of other things," Stanich said. "He was beet red in the face and pounding on the desk. I frankly was frightened. I had never seen anything like that." ...

For the full article, click here.

Hmmm. Hope it was not Minnesota Lawyer he was reading.

In any case, check back to this blog later if you have the chance. I am going to see if I can retrieve some info that would make for an interesting post.

Hatch's value added to AG’s Office

Putting aside for a moment press reports that some of the favorable postings on this site may have been made under pressure, I count a total of 16 posts on our site so far that could be called positive toward the AG’s Office. All of those posts say something positive about Lori Swanson. However, just two say something positive about Mike Hatch.

The two arguably favorable comments say:

-- “In my almost 9 years in the Office I have always been treated fairly, respectfully and professionally. I am impressed by the work ethic and dedication of both former Attorney General Mike Hatch and Lori Swanson”;
-- “Mike Hatch works about fifty feet from my office. It looks to me like he is damn busy working on cases.”

I am trying to determine if the general lack of comment on Hatch in these otherwise positive posts about the AG's Office is an oversight or a damning with faint praise. Anyone else have anything positive to say about what value Hatch brings to the AG's Office in his current role? The Strib reports that he makes $107,000 a year for his job as director of complex litigation. Is he worth it? And what exactly does he do?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Is a million dollars enough?

I recently discovered that at least one of Minnesota Lawyer's 2007 "Up and Coming" attorneys is a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum. Curious, I jumped onto the forum's website to find out more about it.

According to the site, The Million Dollar Advocates Forum was started in 1993 and is "the most prestigious group of trial lawyers in the United States," with membership limited to attorneys who have obtained at least one million dollar verdict or settlement.

Hummmm.... a million dollar verdict or settlement. True, that's a lot of money. But 14 years ago it was a lot more money than it is today. And we are seeing more and more million dollar verdicts and settlements every year. So with inflation and the passage of time, is a million dollars still enough to single an attorney out as one of the country's most prestigious lawyers?

I don't mean to disparage members of the forum -- they have obviously obtained some very good results for their clients. But is it time for the forum to up the ante -- and it's name -- perhaps to something like "The Multimillion Dollar Advocates Forum"? Just a thought ...

Did Hatch pressure staffers to blog on this site?

The Pioneer Press has an excellent story about the situation at the AG's office that even gives our blog a mention. Here is the reference to our blog:

.... Speculation and concern in recent weeks about the escalator out of the attorney general's office led Mark Cohen, editor in chief of the weekly Minnesota Lawyer, to comment on the matter in a blog Saturday. More than 40 commenters rapidly piled on before Cohen ended the string Thursday morning, saying it was becoming unproductive.

Among the comments were several laudatory posts praising Swanson and signed by staff members. One former employee accused Hatch of pressuring staff to post positive comments on the blog, in one case even writing a comment for the staffer.

Hatch denied doing so. "I haven't written any blogs," he said. "In fact, I don't even have an e-mail address." ... (For the full story, see State attorney general's office in shake-up.)

Wow. Those posts coming out of the AG's Office did look orchestrated, but sinking so low as to actually write a comment for a staffer? To pressure others to blog? This from a man who was a few votes shy of being elected the governor of this state?

If any of this is true, I offer my condolences to all the affected individuals . That was not what this blog was supposed to be about, and that type of abuse would be insupportable. I would be happy to offer my cooperation with any sort of investigation. Unbelievable.

In any event, now that the purpose of our blog entry on the AG's Office is out of the bag, I have published below the full story behind our use of this blog to help bring this story to light.

The story behind the Swanson post

Since our blog is new, I thought I would provide you with a little of the back story on our post asking for comments on the two deputies leaving at Attorney General Lori Swanson's office.

Around the start of April or so, the Minnesota Lawyer staff began hearing ruminations about potential morale issues at both the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Attorney General's Office. We started looking into both of these potential stories, but U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose's three deputies stepped down from their leadership positions before we were able to do anything about those reports -- and a blitz of media coverage on that story ensued.

We heard rumors of a unionization attempt, a large number of departures and personnel-related issues at the AG's Office. However, no one in the office would step forward. The only information we could get on the AG's staff issues was not anything even near being on the record. Minnesota Lawyer staff reporter Dan Heilman spearheaded the investigation, trying to quietly get confirmation of the story and substantiate the facts through various sources. However, he kept running into a wall. Although we knew it would be a tip off to the AG's Office that he was working on something, Dan ultimately decided to make a Data Practices Act request to get information on all the staff departures that had occurred since Swanson became AG. That request is still pending.

Meanwhile, with the launch of our blog, I decided to try to grease the wheels a bit by putting up a post that might encourage some folks to come forward if they had verifiable information about the issues at the AG's Office. For the same reason we could not run the story in Minnesota Lawyer, I did not want to put any of the unverified rumors that we heard into our post. I felt this would be irresponsible reporting. Instead, I devised a post using the one verified fact that we had -- i.e. that Swanson's two deputies had left.

In the post ("A Double Standard?"), I queried why "nary a word" had been said in the general media about Swanson's deputies departing while Paulose was the subject of a barrage of coverage. Adding controversy into the mix, I asked if their differing political persuasions might have had a role in the disparate coverage. (Swanson is a DFLer; Paulose is a Republican.) I figured we would get four or five posts out of it, but that one might be a strong enough lead to verify the story for our newspaper.

But the conservative blogs such as Power Line and Minnesota Democrats Exposed loved the angle of the media pursuing a Republican U.S. attorney over a managerial situation, but not evidencing any interest in a possible managerial situation at the office of an AG who happened to be a DFLer. The conservative blogs gave the post prominent play and out it went all over the blogosphere. Meanwhile, CJ at the Star Tribune became aware of the posting and gave me a call. CJ ran a little item in her column about the post. I mentioned in CJ's column that we wanted comments about the transition at the AG's Office. (Kudos to CJ for being the only person in the general media to pick up on this! A move over to news, perhaps?)

Once it became known through these various sources we were looking for information on our blog, we got a slew of anonymous comments. Several were addressed at me accusing me of having a political agenda (presumably conservative) and of trying to do a hatchet job on Swanson. Then many more anonymous comments repeating some of the rumors that we had already heard about the AG's Office, but giving us no more information than we already had. None of the comments gave us verifiable information.

Suddenly we started getting a bunch of posts from assistant AGs affirming their support of Swanson. It looked like some of these posts were being orchestrated. We wondered why anyone would bother orchestrating a campaign for a simple blog debate. The posts were coming in fast and furious at a rate I never would have anticipated. However, they began getting repetitive and were providing no useful information. Once we passed 40 or so on Thursday morning, we closed the post to further comments.

A few hours later during a routine press conference on another matter, Swanson suddenly found herself fielding unrelated questions from reporters about some of the very concerns that had been raised by posters on this blog. It was then that she confirmed that at least 25 employees had left her office since January. The fact that employees at the AG's Office are trying to unionize also was confirmed. (Follow-up reports are confirming a major morale issue exists in the office.) The Pioneer Press reporter who contacted me was kind enough to let me know that our blog was all the buzz at the press conference.

We are happy for what assistance we offered in bringing this to light so that the situation can be properly addressed. The entire Minnesota Lawyer editorial staff had a hand and input into this unique collaboration between print and electronic journalism, so kudos to Dan, associate editors Barbara Jones and Michelle Lore and Special Sections editor Michael Krieger.

Thanks to all the posters on this blog. We are sorry that we could only give you limited information about why we were seeking your input, but it would not have been responsible journalism for us to have reported unsubstantiated rumors on such important issues.

In any event, we look forward to continuing to serve you with this blog and our regular print publication, Minnesota Lawyer, in the future. We hope you make this -- our new blog -- a regular destination.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Swanson, union in 'ugly' tussle

From the Associated Press (as reported on the Star Tribune website):

Minnesota's largest state employee union acknowledged Thursday it is attempting to organize lawyers within Attorney General Lori Swanson's office, and the process has apparently turned ugly.

Swanson, a first-term Democrat, accused leaders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 of threatening to launch a campaign to "demean or disparage" the office if she didn't allow them to proceed.

Click here for more.

Hmm. I guess this confirms some of the ruminations we have heard coming out of that office. One of our reporters, Dan Heilman, had been looking into the departure issue since early April and recently has been waiting for an answer on a Data Practices Act request to give us a list of the departed attorneys and staff.

'Sweet Land' wins Best Film

The locally produced movie "Sweet Land" won Best Film in the City Pages' annual readers poll this week.

Edina business attorney
Terrance W. Moore served as the film's lead lawyer and one of its executive producers. He also handled most of the contract negotiations that went into the feature film venture.

Sweet Land presents the tale of a mail-order bride who comes from Germany to rural Minnesota in 1920. Terry got involved with the movie through his college roommate, who was friends with writer and director Ali Selim. The movie grossed $1.5 million at the box office and grabbed several honors, including an
Independent Spirit Award and an Audience Award at two film festivals.

Minnesota Lawyer is happy to report that we saw Terry’s brilliance all along. Our staff presented him with an Attorney of the Year award in February for his work on "Sweet Land" and continued excellence in his business law practice.

Congratulations Terry!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dog-owner liability laws: Do they have enough teeth?

Three times in the past month, a Twin Cities resident has been attacked by a pit bull, a fact that's been hard to miss thanks to extensive news coverage of the attacks. But lost in the headlines is the fact that dog attacks aren't at all uncommon. Since 1999, St. Paul has recorded an average of about 300 dog attacks (including dogs going after other animals) per year -- that's more than five a week. But because of the relative severity of the attacks, and the reputation pit bulls have for being bred to attack, their stories get more attention.

Odds are, at least one of the recent attack victims will receive overtures from a personal injury attorney, if they all haven't already. It's not hard to find signs of negligence, such as the easily-cleared three-foot fence the owner of the dogs in the most recent attack used to contain them. And it's hard to blame the victims of such a trauma for wanting compensation for their injuries.

Minnesota's laws are unusually favorable toward bite victims. Here, dog owners are liable for damages resulting from attacks, including all medical bills directly and indirectly associated with the attack, psychological counseling, loss of earnings, disfigurement, and pain and suffering. And in Minnesota, the dog's "owner" can be anyone who harbors the dangerous animal, even a landlord who lets the dog onto his property.

Is this a case where stricter regulation of pets such as pit bulls could prevent not only tragic attacks, but also future lawsuits? Or would that be singling out breeds -- again, such as pit bulls -- that, according to many animal experts, are as gentle and loving as other breeds but are made mean by negligent owners?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Kaardal on casinos

The Star Tribune this week has run a two-part series on a dispute by certain Dakota Indians over membership in the Mdewakanton Sioux tribe. The rift goes back to the 1862 Sioux uprising in Minnesota, after which tracts of land were set aside in trust for the Dakota who did not fight against the United States. Those tracts became the Shakopee, Prairie Island and Lower Sioux reservations, where casinos earn gazillions.

A lawsuit over membership in the tribes controlling the casino profits is proceeding with approximately 7,000 of the plaintiffs represented by Minneapolis attorney Erick Kaardal. The lawsuit contends the United States has mismanaged the trust by not ensuring that benefits from the land -- i.e., casino profits -- are fairly distributed to all beneficiaries.

Kaardal said he was very pleased with the Strib’s article but also points out that complete information about the lawsuit is available at his firm’s Web site, mklaw.com. Click on the link at the top of the page regarding Wolfchild et al. v. United States.

Hagstrom’s agenda: Microsoft does not pass go

Minneapolis attorney Richard Hagstrom does not care what Peter Lattman or anyone else at the Wall Street Journal Law Blog has to say about anything, let alone the $75 million fee that Microsoft Corp. has agreed to pay Hagstrom and the other plaintiff’s counsel in an antitrust class action in Iowa against the software behemoth. Lattman hasn’t shown much interest in Hagstrom’s point of view in the past, he told Minnesota Lawyer. “He has one agenda and one agenda only.”

In this and in other cases against Microsoft, Hagstrom has argued that the company charges too much for software because it is virtually a monopoly.

The WSJ appears to take a dim view of the case -- who knew? In reporting the fee award the WSJ quoted earlier remarks made in connection with another case by Microsoft lawyers about plaintiff’s lawyers and boundless greed and pointedly noted that the named plaintiffs in the case will receive $10,000.

Microsoft will also pay up to $180 million to consumers who claim their refunds. The company will donate 50 percent of the unclaimed refunds to purchase computers for rural and disadvantaged schools in Iowa In addition, it will make payments of $1 million to the Iowa Department of Education to administer the computer vouchers and $1 million to the Iowa Legal Aid Society. Hagstrom pointed out that Microsoft agreed to the fee award, probably because it had paid its own lawyers a lot more. Over 100,000 hours have been clocked on the Iowa case, which has lasted more than six years.

Hagstrom is now heading north into Canada to take on Microsoft, where he says the antitrust law is “fairly similar.”

Equal pay for equal work?

Today is Equal Pay Day, which is a symbolic reference to the number of days into a new year that women have to work before earning what men earned by Dec. 31. A new study by the American Association of University Women reports that one year after college graduation, women earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. The association has reported that the “usual suspects” such as occupation, hours and care-giving responsibilities account for only 15 cents of that gap.

Sadly, the income gap doesn’t change with a higher level of education, for instance, a J.D. The study shows that by 10 years after graduation the pay gap had grown to 31 cents on the dollar, with 12 of those cents unexplained.

That’s consistent with the most recent American Bar Association statistics, which show that in 2002 women lawyers earned 69.4 cents on the dollar compared to men but by 2005 that gap had shrunk to a still unacceptable 77.5 cents. (ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, 2006).

In Minnesota, says the AAUW, women earn 77 percent of men do when both are college-educated and working year round. This puts Minnesota 15th in the country in terms of its pay gap.

There has got to be a solution to this situation, which is why I am encouraged to see the Minnesota Legislature dig the notion of “comparable worth” out of the 1970s archives and consider applying it to entities doing business with the state. The bill has passed the House and may be heard in the Senate finance committee this week.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Minnesota Lawyer blog now officially live!

Minnesota Lawyer today officially unveils its new blog, which was created to serve as a forum for discussing issues of interest to the state’s legal community.

The Minnesota Lawyer Blog has been operating in beta version for the last few weeks and has already generated more interest than we anticipated.

The blog is another way that we seek to bring interesting and relevant information to the legal community. Because the blog brings to the table the added benefit of interactivity, we hope to use it as a springboard to stimulate discussion on the many issues that have an impact on the legal profession and those it serves.

Postings will be made by members of the Minnesota Lawyer editorial staff, who bring a wealth of experience covering law-related topics. Welcome, take a look around and please visit again. Every weekday there will be at least one fresh post.