Departing deputy corrections commissioner says she’s under investigation for lobbying on state time
ST. PAUL — A departing top official with the Minnesota Department of Corrections says she’s being investigated for improper lobbying on state time — an allegation she denies and calls “underhanded.”
Sarah Walker, who resigned Friday, July 19, as deputy commissioner while she’s under investigation for unspecified complaints against her, issued a statement Monday that reads, in part: “The complaint alleges that I conducted private lobbying activities on state time, after my appointment to the DOC. Until this weekend I was unaware of the nature or origin of the complaint. As I have been quoted in the media since my resignation, that complaint played no role in my decision to leave.”
Walker also accused state Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, of instigating at least part of the investigation by making a complaint against her. Lesch unequivocally denied that.
“Her narrative is false,” Lesch said in a statement to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
A source within the Department of Corrections said the investigation was prompted internally.
Walker cited unnamed sources “from leadership within the administration.”
On Friday, a corrections department spokeswoman said only that there were “complaints” against Walker, and that an investigation had not been completed.
Who is Sarah Walker?
Before being brought into state government earlier this year by the administration of Gov. Tim Walz, Walker was a veteran lobbyist and advocate for criminal justice and public safety matters, pressing for issues like prison reform, felons' voting rights and gun control. She worked for a well-known lobbying and public relations firm, MZA and Co.
Her client list included at least 28 organizations, ranging from the ACLU to Goodwill Easter Seals to the city of St. Paul, according to state records.
When Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell appointed Walker to deputy commissioner in January, Walker had to relinquish those lobbying contracts and would have been prohibited from trying to independently advocate for those clients, especially on matters that relate to corrections. Many of the reforms that Walker and her previous clients supported were policies endorsed by Walz and Schnell.
Walker is married to Minneapolis criminal defense attorney Brock Hunter. Hunter also serves as president of the nonprofit Veterans Defense Project , a group that has sought state funding as recently as this year. The group did not receive any funding in the state budget approved by the Legislature and signed by Walz.
Walker was also the subject of publicity in 2017, when she came forward with sexual harassment allegations against then-Rep. Tony Cornish , who soon resigned. Cornish had chaired the public safety committee, an important panel for many of Walker’s clients and causes.
When Walker resigned Friday, she said she would prefer to push for reform “from the outside.”
Walker accuses Lesch
The feud between Walker and Lesch has deep tentacles in the politics of the state Capitol and St. Paul Democrats. Both are prominent figures in the party.
Lesch, who was first elected in 2002 and is serving in his ninth term, sits on the public safety committee and chairs the House judiciary committee. A lawyer, Lesch worked for 15 years for the St. Paul city attorney’s office as a prosecutor focusing on domestic assault.
Since last year, he’s been in a legal battle with Lyndsey Olson , the current St. Paul city attorney. The two had crossed paths previously, as both served in the Minnesota National Guard. Lesch wrote to St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, questioning Olson’s management ability, soon after he appointed her. Olson sued Lesch for defamation. Olson sits on the board of the Veteran’s Defense Project.
Lesch’s wife, Melissa, is a registered lobbyist at the Capitol. For years, she represented the city of Minneapolis. After Walker was appointed to the DOC and left MZA, Melissa Lesch was hired by the firm.
Lesch briefly sought the 2018 Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement for attorney general, but left the busy field after state campaign finance regulators fined him $20,000 after concluding he made improper transfers between his campaign and personal accounts.
Walker under investigation
According a statement from Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald, “We received complaints about Deputy Commissioner Walker, and the investigation has not been completed.”
No further information had been made available as of Monday.
But Walker on Monday said her own sources “within the administration” told her that Lesch filed a complaint against her.
Lesch said that was untrue, telling the Pioneer Press that neither he nor anyone associated with him filed any complaints against Walker.
Rep. Marion O’Neill, a Republican from Maple Lake who serves on several committees that oversee criminal justice and corrections, has filed a request for parts of Walker’s calendar, texts and emails, and timecards from between Jan. 1 and July 19.
Ryan Faircloth contributed to this report.