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Attorney Keith Ellison in his Minnesota Capitol office on April 18. The previous day, he observed his 100th day on the job. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Attorney Keith Ellison in his Minnesota Capitol office on April 18. The previous day, he observed his 100th day on the job. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Ellison: Plenty of irons in the fire

On April 17, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison observed his 100th day on the job. He’s already been accused of being overly political — largely for signing onto litigation launched by other states’ attorneys general, much of it aimed at curbing presidential excesses.

However, Ellison has been quiet when it comes to leading such efforts. One exception is when he signed on as co-leader of an attorneys general coalition to support Liberian immigrants trying to avoid deportation. President Donald Trump relented and extended their deferments by one year, allowing them to remain in the United States temporarily.

Still, as a steady stream of press releases would indicate, Ellison has plenty of irons in the fire. He is working, for example, to avoid Senate-proposed cuts to his office’s operating budget while simultaneously trying to beef up its criminal division. He also has launched or is planning task forces aimed at lowering drug prices and thwarting hate crimes.

During the Legislature’s holiday break last week, Ellison sat down for a chat with Minnesota Lawyer. By chance, it happened just two hours after the U.S. attorney general held a press conference to preemptively describe the Mueller Russia probe report.

Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.

Minnesota Lawyer: Your national analog, U.S. Attorney General William Barr, appeared on national television this morning.

Ellison: I saw him.

Minnesota Lawyer: What did you think of his performance?

Ellison: I thought his performance was disappointing because he looked like he was Donald Trump’s personal attorney. Everything he said was, “Trump’s exonerated. Trump didn’t do all this stuff.”

It just did not seem like an objective, public interest-rooted presentation. It seemed like he was operating in a way misaligned with the mission of his office. He seemed like a very intense partisan and not a people’s lawyer, which is what he should be.

What [Special Counsel] Robert Mueller said is that he could not establish collusion or collaboration or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Not being able to establish something is not exoneration. It’s not saying it didn’t happen. It’s saying that we could not clearly conclude that it happened.

We need the report to understand that better and I haven’t read it. I’m going to read it before I jump to a conclusion.

Minnesota Lawyer: Let’s get down to your job. One of the things that you’ve consistently said is that you want to help people afford their lives. What does that mean and why is it the attorney general’s job to do that?

Ellison: So much of the lives we lead have to do with how we engage the economy. The attorney general’s job is to be the lead public-interest lawyer for the state. So what does that mean? That means that if somebody is trying to rip you off, I need to stop that or do anything I can to stop it. If somebody is trying to pay you fewer wages than you’re entitled to, I need to stop that. If somebody is charging you more for lifesaving drugs that you need to sustain your life and more than the market or legitimate costs can support, I need to address that.

Minnesota Lawyer: So to put it in terms that people are familiar with from the attorney general’s office, this is about consumer protection?

Ellison: It’s about consumer protection but it’s also about worker protection and market protection. We have direct authority to work on antitrust things. That means the attorney general needs to make sure we have competitive markets. Why? Because competitive markets allow us to have price competition, product differentiation, choices for workers.

But that’s not all we do. We also make sure that everybody is treated with dignity and respect in our society, which is part of the people’s lawyer’s job, too. When people are crime victims, we help prosecute. When people are victims of discrimination or unfairness, we do something about that. We represent vulnerable populations, like seniors or people with disabilities. We represent the Department of Human Services and the Department of Health, so we have a job to do there.

So when I say we’ll help people afford their lives and live with dignity and respect, it’s a way of conceiving, explaining and viewing the role of the attorney general’s office in a way that is relatable. When people say “what do you do,” that’s what I do.

Minnesota Lawyer: The Senate finance bill grants you $2.9 million to beef up the criminal division — less than you asked for. But it also cuts your operating budget by $4.4 million over the biennium. If that actually came to pass, what would be the net effect on your office?

Ellison: It would hurt the public interest. What I mean is there would be fewer lawyers to deploy in their best interest. But I mean, until we have to experience that cut, I’m not going to start cutting.

Minnesota Lawyer: Because there are going to be negotiations and those cuts might never come to pass.

Ellison: Right. We may come out of that better than we feared. But I guess what you’re asking about is what if that Senate proposal got through? It would mean fewer people protecting you from consumer fraud. There would be fewer lawyers to send out to help our Greater Minnesota counties. Just fewer and less of everything. And the less we can do, then the more the people we’re fighting against can do. So it is somewhat of a binary thing.

Minnesota Lawyer: Word has filtered back to us that the atmosphere here has changed significantly since you took office. How would you characterize life in the AG’s office under Keith Ellison?

Ellison: Look, we rely on the people who work here to perform Herculean tasks, to throw everything they got into helping the public. The least we could do is have their backs. So we’ve been working hard to make the office an affirming, inclusive place to work, with management and leadership that listens and tries to accommodate employees wherever it doesn’t undermine the work we have to do.

So one of the things we did just recently was we went from a [a rule of] dress for court every day — whether or not you’re in court — to dress for your day. Everybody here is going to be expected to be professional and look professional, dress professionally. But we have loosened it up where it’s appropriate to do so. Because the employees like it and it makes their workday a little bit more enjoyable.

I think that the overall effect is going to be that we’re going to have a happier, more energetic, more efficient workforce. I just don’t buy the line of thinking that the way to get the most out of people is to be super hard on them and not listen to them.

Minnesota Lawyer: That’s a critique of your predecessor?

Ellison: But it’s not a personal one because I wasn’t here then, so I don’t know. I make no comments about that.

Look, I’m very grateful to [former Attorney General] Lori Swanson and I consider her a friend. Nothing I’m saying is a negative reflection on her. I’m simply saying that nobody can expect me to be a clone of my predecessor and I’m doing this thing the way I see to do it.

Minnesota Lawyer: In the blog post where you marked your 100th hundred day in office, you made reference there to a new wage-theft unit. What’s your vision for the wage theft unit?

Ellison: My vision is to help people get the money they earned. It’s for us to collaborate with the departments of Labor and Industry, Commerce, DEED, Transportation and whoever — to work together as a team.

Minnesota Lawyer: Is that a prosecutorial unit?

Ellison: There’s both. I mean, look, there’s criminal labor trafficking laws. And we’re prepared to use those. There is a civil side as well.

Minnesota Lawyer: But would much of it be civil? Because a lot of “wage theft” is really just catching people not keeping their books correctly. Sometimes there are mistakes, sometimes it’s neglect.

Ellison: Right. And we don’t want to use a hammer when another kind of instrument would do the trick. But there are people who are absolutely … I mean … they’re basically slavers, you know?

And it’s not even only the wages. I talked to a guy who had a vat of hot grease splatter on him. He looked like he had cigarettes put out on his arm. And his employer told him, “Don’t go to the hospital. Because if you go to the hospital, I pay you cash and I’ll get into a lot of trouble. So here’s some ointment you can put on and then it’ll be fine. And be back to work tomorrow.” No worker’s compensation. No nothing.

And so these are the lives people are living. And a lot of the people aren’t documented, quite frankly. But my question is, so what, you know?

Let me tell you, this is actually a punishment and an injury to businesses. There’s a guy, Ricardo Batres, who is being prosecuted in Hennepin County right now. This dude ran a construction company. And what he [allegedly] would say is, “I only want to hire people who are not documented and I’m going under-bid all of my competitors.” So if you’re a business who pays people properly and you have a competitor who is wage-thieving his or her workers, you are at a competitive disadvantage.

Minnesota Lawyer: We actually had a civil war over that.

Ellison: Right, right, exactly! [Laughs.] We can’t exist that way! So this is why it’s good for everybody for there to be energetic enforcement of our wage and hour laws and our worker’s compensation laws.

Minnesota Lawyer: In a recent newspaper editorial, you were accused of being overly political already. It’s pretty early in your tenure. What do you think is the deal with that?

Ellison: Let me just tell you this, man — and this is just a straight up, candid thing. There are people who are going to call me “political” because I am politically liberal. And that’s not my idea of being politicized at all.

What I would define as politicizing the office is using the office to advance a partisan agenda. And I haven’t done that. I haven’t electioneered from the office. I don’t give a crap who’s a Democrat, Republican, Green or independent who works here. Nothing like that. When I ran, I told people I’m going to stand up for the rights of women who are seeking reproductive choices. I’m going to stand up for working people who are the majority in the state of Minnesota who are trying to make a decent living. There’s no false advertising here.

Minnesota Lawyer: To date, you haven’t led on a lot of litigation. You’ve signed out to other state AGs’ litigation for the most part. Is that a question of learning the ropes and getting the temperature of the room before you make those kinds of moves?

Ellison: Yes, that’s what you’re seeing. We expect to lead you on things into the future. We haven’t led on them yet so much, except for the Liberian thing. We haven’t really done it yet because I just want to make sure we’ve got the bandwidth. I’m not going to just use my authority as the AG to impose stuff on my staff. We’ve got to be able to make sure we can do it well. But there are things percolating that I expect we’re going to lead on.

Minnesota Lawyer: Earlier this month you named members of a bipartisan multidisciplinary task force. Its mission is to find out why drug prices are so high and to strategize ways to lower them. How effective do you think this group can be in pushing for change in that area?

Ellison: It will be extremely effective. Because what is the biggest problem that we have in lowering drug prices? We don’t have a societal strategy on doing it. So these are members of the community from diverse walks of life. They’re going to produce a report, share it and disseminate findings. Those will involve litigation, legislation and administrative changes—and also educational ones. I’m very upbeat and excited about what they’re going to achieve.

Minnesota Lawyer: What’s the status on the bias crime task force that you announced in Bloomington at the Muslim solidarity rally in March?

Ellison: Things are already moving on that. One of the things we’re discussing is what to call it. It will involve bias crimes. It will involve domestic terrorism. But right now, we’re discussing it with members of the Jewish and Muslim communities — and we’re widening the circle to even LGBTQ and others. We’re having a conversation about how we’re going to launch, how are we going to organize it and how are we going to do the mission. It’s actually a pretty participatory process. We’re in the midst of that right now and we expect to launch sometime in May.

Minnesota Lawyer: You also recently filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court asking justices not to review a pair of Janus-style union cases out of Minnesota. What’s important about these cases [Bierman vs. Walz and Uradnik vs. Inter Faculty Organization]?

Ellison: The cases revolve around the issue of exclusive representation. Collective bargaining and exclusive representation have been longstanding hallmarks of American labor law — they’re critical to help workers get fairness on the job. These cases are progeny of the Janus decision, which I think was wrongly decided. The plaintiffs are challenging the right for the union to be the exclusive representative of their employees. I think these two cases are also wrong and would definitely undermine the rights of average working people to bargain collectively and have justice for themselves and their family in the workplace.

Minnesota Lawyer: Finally, how do you like the job so far?

Ellison: I really love it. It’s a great job. It is. It is a true privilege to do this job. I’ve had a great time and I feel like we are doing meaningful good. It’s just great. I think it’s the most fun I’ve ever had professionally.

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