I was disappointed but not surprised when I heard assistant Attorney General Amy Lawler had been suspended from her job after interviews aired on Minnesota Public Radio and published on MinnPost critical of Attorney General Lori Swanson. Frankly, the only unexpected thing was that it took them a couple of days to do it. But of course, that's mostly because there was an intervening weekend.
Lawler is a fledgling attorney who started at the Attorney General's Office last fall shortly after graduating Harvard Law School. She's not some sort of a political hack on a vendetta against Swanson, but an idealistic young lawyer who happens to believe in unions. With the bravery (or perhaps naivete) of youth, she volunteered herself to be the public face of the union movement in the office -- something the more seasoned hands in the office were understandably reluctant to do themselves. Most of the management concerns Lawler expressed to MinnPost's Eric Black and Minnesota Public Radio have been previously expressed by a number of others in the office, albeit not for attribution.
The reason proffered for Lawler's forced administrative leave -- not going through "proper channels" for filing an ethics complaint -- strikes me as weak, particularly given that, in a labor dispute, the channels are what's the problem. In any case, I believe the complaints Lawler has against Swanson are based on her management style rather than on any alleged ethical breach. And at least one press report indicated that Lawler had affirmed as much in an e-mail to management. So it appears the "crime" for which Lawler was put on forced leave was that she failed to follow the proper procedures for bringing an ethical complaint that she did not have. (To borrow a phrase from "Casablanca," they have not quite decided yet whether she committed suicide or was shot while escaping ...)
Under the playbook that has been in use at the AGO for the last nine years, management would take a hard line with a dissenter like Lawler --- isolate, marginalize and root out. But what if -- and this is a big what if -- Swanson threw the playbook into the meat grinder rather than Lawler. This sincere young woman did what she thought was right and highlighted some longstanding concerns that badly need addressing, regardless of whether management agrees with the methodology. What if management actually listened to the concerns she expressed and attempted to address them? What if rather than treating Lawler as the enemy, management treated her as the friend who told it that its zipper was open? That might be a more effective way of diffusing the labor situation at the office than any sledgehammer-approach could ever be.
It's time for a new approach at the AGO. Allowing Lawler to return from administrative leave would be an excellent first step.