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State Auditor Julie Blaha apparently will not have to pick up the legal tab stemming from a lawsuit by her predecessor, Rebecca Otto, against counties seeking to hire their own auditors. (File photo)
State Auditor Julie Blaha apparently will not have to pick up the legal tab stemming from a lawsuit by her predecessor, Rebecca Otto, against counties seeking to hire their own auditors. (File photo)

Bar Buzz: Blaha won’t be punished for Otto suit

Plugged-in readers perusing Senate File 2227—the omnibus state government appropriations bill—might be on the lookout for the punitive measure proposed in January to punish State Auditor Julie Blaha’s office.

We’ll save you the effort. It’s not there.

In January, Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, authored Senate File 154. That bill required Blaha to reimburse Wright, Becker and Ramsey counties’ legal costs for defending against a lawsuit filed by Rebecca Otto, Blaha’s predecessor.

Otto sued the counties to prevent them from hiring private auditors, something the Legislature gave them permission to do in 2015. Calling that unconstitutional, Otto sued. She lost her case in the state Supreme Court last year.

In the original SF154, money to reimburse counties could only come out of Blaha’s tiny constitutional division, which consists of just 1.75 full-time equivalent workers—Blaha herself, her general counsel and her legislative affairs director.

The Kiffmeyer bill, authored in the House by Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, barred Blaha from shifting payments from other parts of her budget. It also required a legislative permission slip for her office to either initiate or defend future litigation.

In the omnibus now being heard in conference committee, that language is either gone or changed so that it doesn’t affect the state auditor.

The $141,000 still gets paid to the counties, assuming the provision survives conference negotiations. But it now comes out of the general fund, not Blaha’s desk drawer. The bit about having to get legislative permission to pursue litigation is gone, too.

“I think that was actually even more important,” Blaha said Wednesday. “The idea that they would micromanage us like that is really a problem if we want to be a coequal branch of government. So that was also good to see that gone.”

Blaha gives credit to Kiffmeyer and Lucero for their willingness to consider the changes. Blaha thinks their change of heart might partly be due her own approach to the office, which she assumed in January.

Blaha said some of her first calls as auditor were to officials in Wright and Becker counties, and she thinks lawmakers took note of that.

“I think it was that demonstration that we are really are committed to rebuilding these relationships,” she said. “I think that was that was the assurance that they needed.”

Blaha said she also met with Kiffmeyer expressing willingness to “turn the page,” post-litigation. Blaha even supported the idea of reimbursing counties—just not out of her own budget.

While the lawsuit was filed against the counties, Blaha said, that was effectively a proxy war. The real dispute was the political one between auditor’s office and the Legislature, she said. “That’s where the dispute lived, so that’s where the cost should live too,” she said. “And [Kiffmeyer] could agree with that.”

Despite the rough start, Blaha said that the process of getting counties reimbursed while building new bridges to the Legislature worked out well.

“This is the way I wish it always worked,” she said. “This would be the ideal.”

New ALJ chief sought

Minnesota’s executive branch is looking for a new chief administrative law judge. Judge Tammy L. Pust’s term will end at the end of June. The governor’s notice said: The Chief Administrative Law Judge must be learned in the law and is appointed by the Governor for a term of six years, with advice and consent of the Senate. The Chief Judge is responsible for appointing other administrative law judges and compensation judges as necessary to fulfill the duties of the office.

The application process is now open for this upcoming appointment. An individual wishing to apply may request an application by contacting Carl Dennis, Judicial Appointments Coordinator, at carl.dennis@state.mn.us. A cover letter and resume should also be submitted with the application. Application materials are due by close of business on Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

Legal tech help

The ABA has a new project through its Center for Innovation, which was formed to create more accessible, efficient and effective legal services.  Seven legal tech companies have agreed to provide free technology products and services to legal aid offices that help low-income Americans, the ABA announced last week. “The donations from these generous companies will directly help bridge this ‘justice gap’ at a time when our nation’s legal aid organizations are being challenged to do more with less,” said ABA President Bob Carlson.

The first group of donors are Ross Intelligence and PacerPro of San Francisco; MetaJure of Seattle; vTestify and Civvis of Raleigh, N.C.; Powernotes of Chicago and Documateof Los Angeles. Interested legal tech companies and LSC-funded grantees can indicate their interest in participating by signing up at www.legaltechforachange.org.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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