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Ex-employee sues after Lori Swanson’s attempts ‘to discredit him’

Kevin Featherly//August 13, 2018//

Ex-employee sues after Lori Swanson’s attempts ‘to discredit him’

Kevin Featherly//August 13, 2018//

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Update, Aug. 15: On Wednesday morning, Ramsey County Chief Judge John Guthmann denied D’Andre Norman’s request for a temporary restraining order against Attorney General Lori Swanson after she allegedly directed a spokesman to release details of his court history to the press. Guthmann said the material released was public record and that Norman was incorrect in asserting that his criminal history was expunged.

Guthmann also said that a lawsuit against the attorney general was unlikely to prevail and urged Norman and his attorney, Marty Carlson, to withdraw the litigation.  As of early Wednesday afternoon, Norman and Carlson were weighing their options.

Look for further updated coverage of Wednesday’s court hearing in Monday’s edition of Minnesota Lawyer. 

A temporary restraining order sought against the attorney general by a former staffer may have lost some urgency—because any damaging information the office has on D’Andre Norman might already have been disclosed, his lawyer said Saturday.

Norman, who describes himself as a former political operative and member of Attorney General Lori Swanson’s inner circle, filed for the restraining order as part of a larger lawsuit late Friday.

The case was assigned Monday to Ramsey County Chief Judge John H. Guthmann. An initial hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, at 9:30 a.m.

The case was filed after Ben Wogsland, Swanson’s spokesman, began communicating with reporters about Norman’s alleged criminal past. Wogsland sent out a copy of a 2014 felony criminal complaint charging Norman with insurance fraud. But his attorney, Marty Carlson, said Norman was granted diversion in that case, requiring him to comply with a series of conditions. It was then dismissed, Carlson said.

Wogsland also circulated a 2018 civil claim and summons against Norman filed by SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. It charged Norman with failing to return a laptop computer, cell phone and access credentials. That case remains open, Carlson said.

The Wogsland emails were received by Minnesota Lawyer beginning at about 4:15 p.m. Friday.

Carlson said he and his client had to scramble to file suit and seek a restraining order after the communications with reporters commenced.

“There has been a lot of frantic fact-gathering and playing catchup,” said Carlson, himself a former attorney in Swanson’s office now in private practice.

Court documents say that Norman wants a temporary restraining order to protect him “from the irreparable harm caused by defendant Lori Swanson.”

“Ms. Swanson has simply decided to blatantly violate Mr. Norman’s rights in an effort to discredit him after he publicly criticized her in connection with her current gubernatorial bid and the upcoming primary election,” the memo states.

The lawsuit cites Minnesota Statute Chapter 13.08, according to court documents. It reads: “An individual whose record is expunged under this chapter or other law may bring an action under section 13.08 against a government entity that knowingly opens or exchanges the expunged record in a manner not authorized by law.”

But the case is riven with confusion. Carlson admitted Saturday that even he is not certain if his client’s record is expunged, as Norman asserts. Clearing that up may require further discovery, the attorney said. In anticipation of that, the plaintiff wants Swanson to preserve any material germane to the case.

Carlson is also uncertain if there is any more damaging material for Swanson’s office to dump on the media—largely because he does not know what all has been distributed.

He got wind that Wogsland distributed information to some journalists about a handful of misdemeanors Norman was charged with in his twenties, before he hired on at the attorney general’s office. Minnesota Lawyer did not receive that email.

With that out of the bag, Carlson said, it is possible no more damaging information can be shared with reporters.

Wogsland answered no questions about the misdemeanors when contacted Sunday. Nor did he directly reply when asked why he chose to distribute damaging information about Norman’s background in the first place.

“The office did not at any time release any court documents that are not publicly available through the court system,” Wogsland said.

Carlson said he is certain of one thing—that all criminal charges, including the 2014 insurance fraud case that seems to have prompted Swanson to fire Norman—have been dismissed.

So even if Guthmann decides not to grant a temporary restraining order because Norman is at no further risk of harm, the lawsuit likely would survive, Carlson said. It could be amended with new claims that Swanson violated the Data Practices Act or that Norman was defamed, he said.

“In terms of the legal implications, we are in the process of exploring that through our lawsuit,” he said.

Blow up

The controversy started with the publication of articles targeting Swanson and published by The Intercept, a national “adversarial journalism” website. It was launched by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and its editors include investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald, known for breaking news about Edward Snowden’s government surveillance disclosures.

Though the Intercept added heightened detail, it mostly recycled allegations made 10 years ago by Minnesota media. Most related to charges made by employees who claimed they were pressured to do political work and were rewarded or punished based on those contributions. The Intercept also revived the story of Swanson’s successful effort to thwart unionization in her shop.

In two gubernatorial debates broadcast Friday and Sunday, Swanson dismissed The Intercept as “a widely discredited online publication.” She also described an attenuated business relationship between Omidyar and the corporate leaders of two companies her office sued, and suggested those relationships lay behind the articles.

One of the companies, Accretive Health, was heavily fined and banned temporarily from doing business in Minnesota. Swanson said the articles aimed at “settling a score.”

A message to The Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media, asking about any such business relationships was not returned.

The first Intercept story quoted a group of unnamed lawyers and other staffers from the office. The second quoted Norman extensively, by name. Norman asserted that all of charges made in the first article were true and added some of his own.

On Saturday, he reiterated much of what he told The Intercept. Though listed as a mid-level, hourly employee in state databases, Norman said he was really a political operative and enforcer. He was brought onboard, he said, because of his tough, hardscrabble Southside Chicago background.

Norman says he helped recruit workers based on whether they seemed loyal. He said he applied pressure on employees to stuff campaign envelopes, do lit drops, attend conventions or perform other tasks on their own or on company time, all aimed at burnishing Swanson’s image and political aspirations.

Wogsland answered some of those allegations Sunday.

“Any employee who volunteers to participate in the political process—whether for Lori or another candidate—does so on their own personal time,” he said. “The office does not consider an employee’s participation in the political process or lack thereof in determining raises or promotions.”

Norman claimed he was directed to spy on employees suspected of involvement in the 2008 unionization effort, even installing voice-activated recorders in lawyers’ offices if they were suspected of participating. At another point, he personally held a ballot box into which workers cast unionization ballots. He then reported back to Swanson on anyone who appeared to vote yes.

He said it was no mystery to anyone that he worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the attorney general.

“I’m not just an employee that came to work,” Norman said. “I was at Lori’s house many times and broke bread and traveled all across the state. If there are 87 counties, I’d say I’ve probably been in 75 of the counties with her over the years.”

Norman said his internal intelligence work was a key factor in determining whether some workers got hired, fired, promoted or were allowed to languish at the phone banks. His stated job, as a mediator, took up only about 20 percent of his work time, he estimated.

The reason he went public, he said, was to clear his conscience. Despite the fallout and personal exposure, he said, he has no regrets.

“The only thing I get out of this is that the people I hurt will know what was going on,” he said. “They’ll know whether it was me who played a role in their getting pushed out or fired, or who helped them end their drive to unionize and collectively bargain.”

Expungement riddle

In court documents, Norman, 41, alleges that former Attorney General Mike Hatch, a longtime Swanson ally, one day invited Norman into his law office with a promise to expunge his misdemeanor criminal history, which pre-dated Norman’s AG office tenure.

He said Hatch represented to him that the records had been expunged and even shared that information with Swanson on speaker phone.

“Mr. Norman heard Mr. Hatch inform Ms. Swanson that the expungements had been accomplished,” court documents states, “and Ms. Swanson responded to Mr. Norman directly, saying ‘Good, good–hang in there, D!’”

Wogsland did not respond to questions about any expungements. Carlson said he is not sure they actually happened.

He said he was unable initially to locate any of Norman’s criminal records using the MNCIS database using Norman’s name as a search query—suggesting the records were expunged, he said. But Carlson then made another search using case file numbers. The records popped up on screen.

“It suggests to me that no judicial expungement took place,” he said.

If true, Carlson said, that could be fatal to Norman’s case. “But that would be completely at odds with what Hatch said to D’Andre—as D’Andre swore under oath,” the attorney said. “We certainly can’t get to the bottom of it, probably, until we have a chance to do some discovery.”

There may be fallout beyond the courts.

Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, is chair of the State Government Finance Committee that holds executive-agency purse strings. Before the lawsuit was filed Friday, she said she likely would hold hearings next year to explore whether Swanson’s office was used for campaign purposes—a violation of state law. She might direct the Legislative Auditor to invoke his subpoena power, she said.

Anderson said she plans to question whether Swanson used her budget to make cash advances, misused federal funds or granted rapid raises and promotions not really earned.

“She has made arguments in the past for increased funding for her office,” Anderson said. “Is that because that was a true need? Or is that because she was funding her political activities?”

Those hearings would be contingent on Republicans being returned as the House’s majority party next year. Otherwise, Anderson would lose her committee gavel and it would fall to a Democrat.


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