Home Politics Minnesota Attorney General’s Former Deputy Speaks Out About Participation in Political Work

Minnesota Attorney General’s Former Deputy Speaks Out About Participation in Political Work

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On Monday, The Intercept reported that Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson relied on her official government staff for political work, sourced largely to unnamed employees. In the 48 hours after the story’s publication, more than a dozen individuals, including seven more former employees, contacted The Intercept and shared stories of being asked to volunteer politically that corroborated our report. Multiple sources named key Swanson deputies engaged in political activity in the attorney general’s office, repeating the names of staffers who’d previously been identified to The Intercept. One name that was repeatedly mentioned was D’Andre Norman, someone said to be instrumental in pressuring staffers to do Swanson’s political bidding.

Norman left the office in 2014 and is listed in state records as a mid-level employee, but sources claimed he was a close Swanson ally for years.

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The Intercept contacted Norman and asked him about his political involvement with Swanson. He agreed to tell his story. He said that while he felt loyal to many of his co-workers, his time at the attorney general’s office weighed heavily on his conscience. He said he was also fearful that, in any case, his name would soon be exposed by reporters or investigators, at which point Swanson’s allies might attempt to pin all the wrongdoing on him.

“It was all true, unfortunately,” said Norman of The Intercept’s report. “Nothing in there was not right and correct.”

The three-term attorney general is now a leading Democratic contender for governor ahead of an August 14 primary election. 

Swanson’s campaign denied the accuracy of our first report. On Tuesday, the campaign asserted in a statement that there “is no political activity undertaken by any member of the attorney general’s office while ‘on the clock’ for the government, period.” Employees “of the attorney general’s office are paid and promoted based solely on their merit and work responsibilities, period,” the statement continued. The office also claimed that The Intercept, through its parent company, First Look Media Works, could be tied to two companies Swanson prosecuted years before the company’s founding, suggesting that the story was “a political attempt to settle scores.”

In addition to claims from current and former employees that Swanson oversees an office in which employees do campaign work — like scheduling campaign events and stuffing envelopes — during the business day, we reported Monday that seven individuals who were identified as Swanson supporters received notably large raises, according to public records. We also reported that Swanson’s attorney general committee, which has spent $660,000 since the beginning of 2014, reports zero dollars for payroll or employee expense. Her current gubernatorial campaign similarly reports no staff expenses.

It is not illegal for politicians to ask employees to get involved in their campaigns, though Minnesota law bars the use of “official authority or influence” to compel political participation.

State Rep. Sarah Anderson, the Republican chair of a House committee that oversees the attorney general’s office, said on Tuesday she “is considering holding a hearing on the culture of the attorney general’s office next session, even if Swanson is leaving,” Minnesota Public Radio reported. On Twitter, she said The Intercept’s investigation into Swanson is “alarming.”

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D’Andre Norman outside Lori Swanson’s office at the state Capitol.

Photo: D’Andre Norman

Norman, a 41-year-old resident of Minneapolis, worked at the attorney general’s office from 2006 to 2014. Electronically available state payroll records only go as far back as 2011, and they list him as an employee from that year through 2014.

He said he was fired in 2014 after facing a car insurance fraud claim from the state commerce department, though he was allowed to receive unemployment benefits. The charges were eventually dismissed and expunged shortly after he left the attorney general’s office, but he said the episode had attracted unwanted legal attention from state investigators, and Swanson and former Attorney General Mike Hatch were quick to push him out.

Benjamin Wogsland, a spokesperson for the attorney general, declined to answer a series of questions The Intercept asked about Norman’s work, role, and termination. “I must be sensitive to the office’s personnel policies and state laws as it relates to public comments involving personnel matters,” he said.

Before working for Swanson, Norman was involved in local politics. He worked for several years at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the now defunct community organizing group, followed by a stint with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as the Democratic Party is known in Minnesota, that began in early 2006. At the party’s statewide convention that year, he was the person selected to formally nominate Hatch for the party’s gubernatorial endorsement. Later that year, when Hatch lost that race by less than 1 percentage point, he invited Norman to come join him back at the Minnesota attorney general’s office, where Swanson was beginning her first term.

“He personally asked me to come work at the office with him and Lori because they could use my political instincts,” Norman told The Intercept.

When he was hired, Norman said, it was his understanding that Hatch and Swanson expected his job would be primarily political, even though he had job titles like “consumer analyst” and “mediator” in the consumer services division.

Norman described one of his actual roles in the office as being a “recruiter.” He said this meant his job was to encourage employees to staff Swanson’s frequent political events, and he was widely understood to be one of Swanson’s most trusted allies in the office. Multiple sources who spoke to The Intercept confirmed his close association with Swanson. This included Linda McEwen, Swanson’s former executive assistant, who worked in the office from 2007 to 2009, when she was fired. McEwen said that during her tenure, Norman would accompany Swanson to many political events she scheduled on Swanson’s calendar, and he’d help recruit employees to attend other campaign functions.

Hatch did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

Norman emphasized that the work Swanson wanted done required dozens of employees over the course of a year.

“Since 2007, Swanson wanted to get ready to run for governor,” he said. But in order to do so, according to Norman, Swanson believed she needed a constant presence “at every political convention.” This included conventions for the 67 Minnesota Senate districts, which were usually held on weekends.

Norman said Swanson wanted a handful of employees at every convention, often with three to four different conventions each weekend. “It was never anyone outside the office who did the work, so you can imagine how many people it was,” he said, adding that to induce participation, he and his fellow deputies would say Lori would one day run for governor, likely win, “and just imagine where your career could go.”

Sometimes, Norman said, political events that began during the late afternoon on a weekday would necessitate shuffling volunteers out of the office several hours before the close of business.  

“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.

Consumer analysts, mediators, and attorneys were the primary targets, Norman said. Unionized staff, like secretaries, were off-limits.

Discretion was key. Norman described covert exchanges of campaign literature in the downtown parking lot, away from the eyes of others in the office, and said he was personally given a lock for his office door, something most employees did not have. “We’d recruit only certain people and we would tell them to not talk to other staffers about it,” Norman explained. “We’d let them know that Lori trusted them. It was a lot of people’s first job out of college, and we took advantage of that.”

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Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, and D’Andre Norman at a political fundraiser at the Minneapolis Club.

Photo: D’Andre Norman

A staffer who fits that profile is Thomas Olsen, who came forward after The Intercept’s story published on Monday. Olsen, who started as an analyst in the consumer services division immediately after graduating college in 2014, recalled the experience of being asked to volunteer on campaign events by an employee other than Norman, who still works at the attorney general’s office.

“It was just kind of uncomfortable, but it was also confusing because for many of us it’s our first professional job,” said Olsen, explaining it was hard to tell if these were unusual requests, given that they were still ostensibly voluntary. He said he once, during his first year, attended an after-work fundraising event at Mancini’s, a high-end St. Paul steakhouse. “I was given very little instruction of what to do, and when I arrived, I basically just saw all my co-workers,” he told The Intercept. “I wasn’t working behind a booth or anything; it was clear I was just there to be a body.”

“It’s not like if you did campaign work, you’d automatically be promoted,” he added. “But they were so obviously correlated to everyone who worked there.”

Olsen left in April 2017 to work on a mayoral campaign. He now works for a grassroots political action committee that is not connected to specific candidates or parties.

Lawyers at the attorney general’s office tried in 2008 to form a union, but were shut down by Swanson, who said staff lawyers were not covered by the Public Employee Labor Relations Act. At the time, the local press reported on staffers who said they were fired for their union activities.

Over the course of The Intercept’s reporting, several employees identified Norman as someone who assisted Swanson during the union push. When asked by The Intercept, Norman affirmed his role in helping his boss identify union supporters during the ultimately unsuccessful organizing effort. “Lori was against them and saw them as enemies, and I helped find them for her,” he said. “The saying was, ‘If they were close to retirement, then just leave them alone.’” Sometimes, Norman said, he and other Swanson allies would take staffers out to lunch to discourage them from unionization. Another time, he recalls going into employee offices at night and looking through their caller IDs to see who pro-union workers communicated with. “She asked us to do that, I was instructed with that,” he said.

When asked if Swanson ever gave this instruction to Norman and any other individual, Wogsland responded, “To my knowledge, the office telephones did not maintain call logs in 2007.”

Looking back, Norman feels terrible. It was a lot of “careers that got destroyed,” he said, referring to those who were fired for their union support.

Norman was clear that his proximity to Swanson and his political role produced significant professional benefits. “I got an office, I had a secretary,” he said, benefits that mid-level employees typically did not get. “I was reporting personally to Swanson over my supposed immediate supervisors.”

He said that his official workplace duties were mostly completed by his secretary. “As long as the critical stuff was done, it was just a free-for-all,” he said. He recalled receiving other bonuses: “I got sports tickets, Viking games. … I got advances numerous times in cash, anything I wanted.” When it came to vacation days or sick days, Norman said as a member of Swanson’s inner circle, he would sometimes take so-called under-the-table hours, where employees would take time off but the record would show they had been in the office.

Wogsland, the attorney general spokesperson, said his office “does not issue ‘cash advances’ to employees or purchase sports merchandise or tickets for employees or anyone else.”

After being promoted from a consumer analyst to a mediator in the downtown office, Norman was later promoted in 2013 to work at the executive suite office at the state Capitol. About a dozen other attorney general employees worked in that office, which carried reputational and financial prestige. “I think I was only put there so they could give me more money, and I would continue doing the same stuff,” he said. But this promotion moved him away from the downtown office staffers he needed to be actually recruiting. “So then I had two offices: one downtown, one at the capitol,” he said. Norman’s state payroll records from 2011 to 2014 show his salary increased from $40,900 to $62,300 over that span — a 50 percent jump — and that in 2013 he moved up two pay grades in state data.

While Norman saw his career flourish, he said, others were slowed professionally because they refused to engage in politics or their favored politicians were deemed unacceptable. “Lori wanted to know who did not want to help, who was not trustful. And she listened [to what we told her], and those people did not go far. They were always the last to get promoted out of the phone room.”

He said he attended the majority of Swanson’s fundraisers during his time working at the attorney general’s office. Norman said he didn’t explicitly ask people to donate at the fundraisers, but he would tell employees not to complain about the car mileage and occasional hotel expenses they incurred to attend Swanson’s political functions.

When it came to vetting employees politically, Norman said he and other trusted deputies would check their social media accounts for mentions of politicians that Swanson didn’t like, such as state Rep. Steve Simon, who led the call for legislative audits of Swanson’s office. In 2008, Simon presented allegations  to the Minnesota Legislative Auditor about the politicization of legal decision-making under Swanson and Hatch. (Simon, now Minnesota’s secretary of state, served as a representative from 2004 until 2013.)

“A red flag would be if someone would be a Steve Simon supporter,” Norman said. Sometimes the penalty was severe, he added: “We would fire people who said they’re ‘not political’ or supported the wrong people.”

Norman identified several employees who had been unwilling to volunteer. Salary records for those staffers show stagnant or even declining total compensation, corroborating this account. One employee, he said, had “been stuck answering the phones for 10 years” because they refused to participate in politics.

Even attending the wrong college could be a problem, according to Norman. In 2008, after 27-year-old Harvard law school graduate Amy Lawler voiced ethical concerns about Swanson’s office to the media, Norman said top Swanson deputies made a decision to avoid hiring Harvard graduates again, “because they didn’t need Lori.” The same decision was made about graduates of Macalester, a St. Paul college with a reputation for progressive politics. Norman said, “For whatever reason, those would always be the kids who say ‘Man, this is really not right.’”

This year marks Swanson’s 11th year as attorney general, and she is one of the most powerful figures in the state’s Democratic establishment. How is it that the office culture she’s presided over has remained secret for so long?

“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.

Swanson’s campaign did not respond to specific questions about attempts to quash the union effort, but her campaign spokesperson Ruth Stanoch previously told The Intercept that “the law simply does not allow for [unions] and as the chief legal officer of the state, the Attorney General must follow the law.” In 2008, in response to ethical concerns raised by some attorneys, Swanson’s then-spokesperson said it is impossible for an employer to respond to anonymous attacks from former employees or those who may be disgruntled.

The circumstances that led to Norman’s 2014 departure from the office led to a painful realization that his political benefactors were not interested in having his back, he said.

“They always told me I was family, that they would do anything for me,” he said. “It made me feel like the top of the world at the time, but then when I was having some personal troubles, they just wanted to wash their hands of me.”

Norman said Hatch wrote him a resignation letter that he refused to sign. The attorney general’s office ended up firing him, though with unemployment benefits. Norman said his close ties with the attorney general made this process complicated, and Hatch also helped get him his next job at Service Employees International Union. “Family is family,” Norman said.

But immediately after Norman left the attorney general’s office, he said, he slid into a deep depression. “The job, it was my life, I put in everything I had and was totally committed for almost a decade,” he said. “I’ve had to go through a lot of therapy, because I knew what I did was wrong but it was also really hard to leave and felt good they trusted me with so much.” Norman said he was from a broken home, and this was the first time in his life he felt like he had a family. But he said he grew to realize that his employers had taken advantage of that.

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