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Utah attorney general's office: high work, low morale

Published May 28, 2013 1:22 pm

Some struggle in job as morale wilts under relentless spotlight on their boss, his predecessor.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Every day at the Utah attorney general's office, lawsuits are filed and fought. Briefs are written and read. Cases are won and lost.Despite federal and state investigations into the conduct of Attorney General John Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, the foot soldiers who keep the office running are still at it.But the ballooning scandal has made life at Utah's top law enforcement agency more difficult every week, employees in the office told The Salt Lake Tribune.Embarrassment, fear and frustration have taken their toll on the morale of the office's rank and file. For some, it's a daily struggle — to get up, go to work and feel good about it."I really never thought it could possibly get this bad," said an employee who has worked in the office for more than 15 years. "Morale is the lowest I've ever seen it."The Tribune is not naming several state employees who discussed the deteriorating work environment because they worry about retribution and job security.Swallow, who took office in January, conceded the investigations and intense media glare are not making life in the office any easier, but he stopped short of blaming them for the difficulties."Look, I don't like that all this is going on either," Swallow said. "I just hope the controversy is a short-term thing, so this distraction — if you want to call it that — doesn't persist longer than it has to."Swallow praised the commitment and professionalism of his staff and said he and his chief deputies have put a greater emphasis on team-building and bolstering morale.But employees don't feel supported. A number of workers said they are scared — of their bosses, about what's happened and about what may come."There's a paranoia; everyone's afraid," the 15-plus-year employee said. "It's hard to feel good about coming to work every day when you're embarrassed, frustrated and uncertain about the future. It's harder still when you know what the office is capable of being, and you see, instead, what it has become."—The change • The attorneys and support staff who make up the attorney general's office are an idealistic bunch.For many of the 450-plus employees who work there, it isn't just a job. It's a career.More than 230 lawyers work in the agency with more than 220 support staffers.Fourteen division chiefs oversee most day-to-day operations on the criminal and civil sides of the law.They believe in their work — prosecuting child-abuse cases, targeting white-collar crime, defending school agencies and handling natural-resources litigation, to name a few.Many have been employed by the state for decades. They've seen attorneys general come and go. Usually, they said, it doesn't matter who wins at the ballot box."The work hasn't changed in the three administrations I've seen," Litigation Division Chief Steven Walkenhorst said. "Elections are political. We're not. We have the cases that are assigned to us, no matter what."But in recent years, several employees said, that has changed. The person in charge has begun to matter. And not in a good way.Most workers who spoke to The Tribune said the troubles began under Shurtleff, who was elected in 2000.After his 2004 re-election, employees said, Shurtleff became less visible, less engaged.They said the former three-term attorney general held private meetings with interested parties and delegated office management to his top deputies.Shurtleff did not return calls for comment on these allegations."Mark Shurtleff had much greater concern for people outside the office than inside the office," said a high-level employee who feared for his job should he be identified. "There was this sense that it was just about Mark Shurtleff and his own prominence and publicity and headlines."This went on for years, employees said.They started to feel unappreciated and unacknowledged as Shurtleff took public bows for their work but failed to show up at meetings or address workers' concerns.In 2012, a new energy emerged in the agency as Shurt­leff forsook a fourth term. Everyone had their eyes on the election.A new leader could mean a new approach.Swallow, a chief deputy who was Shurtleff's handpicked successor, thumped his Republican opponent Sean Reyes in the GOP primary and went on to trounce Democrat Dee Smith in the November finale.A staffer and a veteran attorney from different departments said workers from around the office had hoped for a change, but instead, the attorney added, Swallow was "just more of the same."—'Downward spiral' • Most of the office's employees do not have day-to-day contact with Utah's top cop. What they know about him, they read in the newspaper or hear on TV.But the scandals — allegations of impropriety, conflicts of interest and campaign-law violations — have touched employees at every level.Some have been tempted to look for other work. But the prospects are poor."There are a lot of people who would leave the office if the job market was better," the veteran attorney said. "But jobs are so tight these days, no one wants to leave — even though they're not happy with what's going on in the office. It's a downward spiral with no landing pad."Part of the problem, workers said, is a lack of top-down leadership.Attorneys general tend to be more hands-off than their chief deputies, but when the investigations began, employees said, Swallow made himself scarcer than most.Swallow, who has set a goal to meet all 230 attorneys who work for him by year's end, said he has renewed his focus on being present."Since I became attorney general, I've really looked at how much time is spent in the chair," he said. "It's important to be here every day, interacting with the attorneys on a much more frequent basis. ... We'll be taking a real hands-on approach as time goes forward."As employees raised concerns about how the agency has been managed, they also criticized another top official: Kirk Torgensen, Swallow's second in command on the criminal side.Those who spoke to The Tribune repeatedly accused Torgensen of what some characterized as "frequent" trips out of town, "absent" leadership and a "pervasive" lack of attention to his job."He's got a reputation," the veteran attorney said. "He should be doing his job, which he isn't."Torgensen, during an interview on his way to a law enforcement conference in southern Utah, said he's a hands-on manager who likes to be "in the trenches" with the attorneys. He said he's taken just a week of vacation this year and meets regularly with division chiefs.He pointed to the reorganization of the office — there used to be two criminal chief deputies; now there is one — and general frustration and misunderstanding as cause for such allegations."I'm proud of my career. I'm proud of what I've done," he said. "And with all the attention that's been given to these accusations, it may cause people to say, 'To what extent has Kirk done something wrong?' That impacts me, because I haven't."—The work gets done • Still, officials said, there's plenty to be proud of at the attorney general's office."These people are professionals," said Brian Tarbet, who runs the civil section. "The work is always going to come first."In February, state attorneys won a Kane County lawsuit over public lands.The child-support division, which seeks to establish paternity and enforce child-support orders, is one of the most heralded in the nation.The office recently held a conference on child-abuse prosecution. More than 700 people showed up."I'm a little defensive when people ask if the work's getting done, because I'm so proud of the people we have in our office," said Torgensen, who heads the criminal section. "It's frustrating that these [scandal] stories have a splash-over effect onto people who I have the utmost respect for."If there's low morale, officials said, it has more to do with employees' stagnant salaries than the swirling allegations against their boss.The last time attorneys in the office got a raise was 2008. There have been no across-the-board pay hikes for staffers in more than 12 years.Local and county prosecutors tend to make more annually, and the earnings of private-sector lawyers far outpace those of their state counterparts."These people come to these jobs out of a commitment to public service," Torgensen said. "But we've lost good lawyers to the county D.A.'s office. … That's a bigger morale issue than anything."—Moving forward • If you ask the folks at what is, in essence, the state's largest law firm what can be done to improve conditions, most don't have an answer.Some believe the agency's image has been irreparably harmed. For the first time in their careers, they're ashamed to say they work at the attorney general's office.Come next year's legislative session, many said, they don't expect any favors."It's obvious to us now how much this has hurt our credibility," the veteran attorney said. "And Swallow won't have any credibility with the Legislature. We're not going to get anything out of them."But they fear the unknown future almost as much as they dislike the unpleasant present."A day does not go by that I don't hear an employee say, 'I wish he [Swallow] would just do the honorable thing and walk away,' " a staffer said. "It's the only quick resolution. But people are uncertain about the future. We have to wonder — could it get worse?"mlang@sltrib.comTwitter: @marissa_jae