A four-year legal defamation case between St. Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson and former St. Paul lawmaker has been settled out of court. Terms of the settlement have not been disclosed, but John Lesch, a former state representative, has written Olson a letter of apology and shared it with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s office.
Olson will receive an undisclosed amount of money from Lesch as well.
“I appreciate the closure the letter brings,” said Olson on Friday. “Receiving an apology is the right result.”
The lawsuit centered around allegedly disparaging remarks that Lesch made about Olson in January 2018, in a wide-ranging letter to then newly-elected St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter listing reasons why Olson would be a bad choice for city attorney.
Lesch, who had previously served in the city attorney’s office and alongside Olson in the Minnesota National Guard, called into question her reputation within the MN Guard’s Judge Advocate General corps. He also asked the mayor for Olson’s disciplinary history within the Guard.
Carter ignored Lesch’s advice and, a few weeks later, Olson sued Lesch for defamation. She argued that he had gone too far in both contacting her employer and raising unsubstantiated claims about alleged misconduct.
Olson, in her lawsuit, noted that as the Guard’s first female general counsel, she was harassed by men who made repeated sexual advances toward her or felt they had been passed over for promotion because of her. The men filed two complaints, neither of which resulted in any action against her.
“This case involves issues of ongoing gender discrimination that permeate our society and disrupt the progress and promotion of women to professional leadership positions,” Olson wrote in the suit.
A WINDING PATH
Rather than proceed to jury trial, the defamation case took a winding path through the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court, which considered whether Lesch, who was then a sitting member of the House, was guaranteed “legislative immunity” from defamation claims by virtue of his position. Three levels of courts rejected his arguments.
As a lawmaker, Lesch had argued, he couldn’t be sued for defamation for making official statements, such as giving a speech on the House floor arguing a certain policy position. The courts saw Lesch’s three-page letter to Carter — which was composed on official state letterhead — in a different light, noting that even though it touched on lobbying issues and other official matters, it was essentially a personal note to the mayor.
“Not all statements of opinion are constitutionally protected speech,” wrote Hennepin County District Court Judge Francis Magill in September 2018, adding later: “The allegedly defamatory communication was not a legislative communication or act.”
The state Supreme Court agreed, and the case was referred back to Hennepin County District Court, where it was delayed by multiple requests to the National Guard for redacted documents.
On May 18, following a day of court-ordered mediation, Lesch notified the mayor’s office in writing that he was sorry about the letter he wrote on Jan. 3, 2018:
“Since my writing of that letter, I was advised that the negative comments included in my correspondence to you, regarding St Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson, referenced complaints that were investigated and not sustained. Had I known that at the time, I would mot have made the negative comments that I made in the letter. Moreover, none of the investigated issues involved complaints of prosecutorial misconduct or using her position in an unjust or unethical matter.
“I am sorry for any embarrassment or discomfort that my comments in the letter may have caused Ms. Olson.”
Reached by phone Friday, Lesch’s attorney Marshall Tanick confirmed that the case had been settled and dismissed and had no further comment.
Lesch, who was first elected to represent House District 66B in 2002, served nine terms in office. In 2020, as he was appealing his case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, he won his political primary for re-election but lost in the general election to Athena Hollins.
Olson, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, last year become the first woman to attain the rank of colonel in the Minnesota National Guard Judge Advocate General’s Corps. She is also the first woman to be the staff judge advocate for the 34th Infantry Division.
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