More Minnesota Madness: Keeping Records From the Public, and “Red Area” Courts From Scrutinizing OAG
Claiming Inconvenience, Minnesota AG Ellison Seeks to Keep Court in “Rocks and Cows” Country Away from Scrutiny of Bloomberg-funded Attorney Deal
AG Office Claims “No Connection” Between Home County of Employer OAG Targeted and Records About OAG Coordination with Outside Groups to Target the Employer
Move comes as OAG refuses to release signed Confidentiality Statement that activists on a Zoom call, posted on YouTube, suggested was violated
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has been sued for yet again ignoring a Minnesota Government Data Practices Act request by the government-transparency group Energy Policy Advocates (EPA). In response, Ellison’s Office has insisted that any confidentiality agreement that a Michael Bloomberg-financed “Special Assistant Attorney General” named Leigh Currie signed in order to be placed in Ellison’s Office remain secret, and that only Minnesota courts located in St. Paul should have any role in scrutinizing the arrangement.
This document became of increased public interest and legal importance when an environmental activist — one who has maintained a continuing relationship with Ms. Currie through an activist-group board — boasted both that he brought Ellison’s June 2020 “climate” lawsuit against the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and Flint Hills Resources to Ellison, and that he has personal knowledge of Ms. Currie’s work on that suit.
After seeing those remarkable claims by the pressure group Fresh Energy’s chief Michael Noble, and having learned of Ms. Currie’s relationship – apparently continuing even after being placed in Ellison’s Office — with Noble on the advisory board of another activist group called Climate Generation, EPA submitted a Minnesota Government Data Practices Act request to OAG on September 4, 2020 for the “SAAGs’” ‘on-boarding’ documents.
This was one of several moves by EPA to learn what information AG Ellison did, or did not, require of the two “Special Assistant Attorney Generals” – Ms. Currie and another, Peter Surdo, hired and placed by a Bloomberg group to file Ellison’s climate crusading litigation. EPA had previously learned that OAG had not obtained the Bloomberg group’s engagement letters with its privately hired attorneys placed in OAG asserting the parties’ relationship, SAAGs’ tasks and compensation. This is increasingly of public interest in the state.
After OAG ignored the request, EPA filed suit in Lyon County, home to Flint Hills Resources, targeted by Ellison. Lyon County also, however, is in “Greater Minnesota,” or what Gov. Tim Walz notoriously described as “red areas” home to “mostly rocks and cows” and, apparently, somewhere the AG does not feel his Office’s operations should face scrutiny.
In response, OAG released a heavily redacted version of Currie’s resume — redacted to hide her reported outside activities, which are at least in some pertinent part already publicly boasted of, and is of course precisely where we would see if she disclosed her ongoing service on the board of Climate Generation with, e.g., Noble. OAG also refused to release a signed copy of the Confidentiality Agreement Ms. Currie would certainly have signed were she an actual employee of the Office, as opposed to being an employee of Bloomberg’s group.
Regarding Noble’s boast and what his claims suggest, the Confidentiality Agreement is clear:
No employee shall disclose to an unauthorized person any information obtained during employment with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office (“Office”) which in any way relates to the representation by the Office of the public, the State, a State agency, the Attorney General, or any other client of the Office, or is otherwise confidential or non-public under applicable law.
Staff attorneys shall abide by the Rules of Professional Conduct and applicable law in maintaining the confidentiality and non-public status of all such information. Other employees shall regard as confidential and non-public all information received, and shall not disclose or disseminate any information except with the consent or at the direction of his or her manager or deputy. This obligation of confidentiality applies not only while an employee is on staff but also after the employee leaves the employment of the Office. If an employee has any questions regarding this obligation of confidentiality, the employee should consult with his or her manager or deputy.
I, ____________________________________, do hereby acknowledge that I have been
advised of my strict obligation of confidentiality regarding information obtained during my employment with the Attorney General’s Office as reflected in the attached OBLIGATION OF CONFIDENTIALITY OF EMPLOYEES OF THE MINNESOTA ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE. I hereby agree to abide by and comply with this obligation of confidentiality.
In order to avoid having to release any such signed agreement, and an unredacted resume showing if Ms. Currie in fact disclosed to OAG her ongoing relationship with the boastful environmentalist with whom Currie still serves on an activist group’s board, OAG vowed to try and escape the clutches of the Lyon County courts, informing GAO of its intention to file a motion seeking to move a lawsuit away from Lyon County, to the Ramsey County District Court in St. Paul,apparently taking the position it can’t get a fair trial outside the state capital.
Minnesota’s Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA) allows for actions against the state to be filed in “any county” (Minn. Code 13.08(3), Civil Remedies). Ellison’s Office instead cites the state’s general venue provision, which MGDPA’s own venue provision supplants, to move the case out of Lyon County and into St. Paul.
Although Ellison’s Office has had no problem finding or appearing in Lyon County courts previously, the AG now claims that filing pleadings electronically is too inconvenient from St. Paul, that hearings likely to be held electronically overly burden the Office and, most shockingly, that there is no connection between the records at issue and Lyon County.
Flint Hills has a facility in Marshall, which is also home to the Lyon County courthouse.
GAO’s Chris Horner notes, “Lyon County residents are suitable as targets of an activist litigation campaign joined by Minnesota’s Attorney General with outside help and apparently coordination but, it seems, not to have a role in examining the propriety of this campaign. Ellison’s position embodies what the Center for the American Experiment called the War on Greater Minnesota well before Gov. Tim Walz’s admitted his view that ‘mostly rocks and cows that are in that red area’.”
The provision of the Minnesota Code under which Ellison anticipates filing the motion allow a change of venue when the parties agree, or if a defendant has been added to prevent a change of venue, neither of which apply. Venue changes are also permissible if it is inconvenient for witnesses to travel to a trial, which a judicial system that quickly adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic with Zoom and WebEx hearings has proved is no longer a consideration.
Implicit in the AG’s effort, therefore, is a belief that the fourth factor permitting a change of venue applies here: Venue may also be changed “when an impartial trial cannot be had in the county wherein the action is pending.” It stands to reason, therefore, that Ellison apparently believes the judicial system of Lyon County cannot be trusted to give him a fair and impartial trial.
GAO’s Matt Hardin, who filed EPA’s records suit, says that “The Attorney General’s claims that the records at issue have no tie to Lyon County, and that it is terribly inconvenient and antithetical to justice to have this heard in Lyon County, are plainly not supported by the facts.”
Ellison’s Office also raises further questions about its arguments by claiming, in its required discussions with GAO prior to filing a motion, that this action should be heard in St. Paul because EPA’s “related cases” under MGDPA are being tried there. This is remarkable.
It was just late September when Ellison’s Office refused to answer even one interrogatory about the very same information, attesting that it was all “irrelevant to the matters at issue in this suit.” Now, however, the AG asserts that the information is so overwhelmingly related to those St. Paul suits as to exclude any Minnesota courts but those located in St. Paul from participating in efforts to examine the machinations of Ellison’s Office.
Hardin added, “The transparency laws are there to protect the rights of all Minnesotans, not just those who live in St. Paul. All Minnesotans deserve a say in how Mr. Ellison is running his office, especially when he uses out-of-state resources to target local employers, and employees.”