Lawyer for GOP candidate for Minn. governor calls ex-client’s malpractice lawsuit ’shakedown’

By Brian Bakst, AP
Friday, October 8, 2010

Ex-client sues GOP candidate for Minn. governor

ST. PAUL, Minn. — It’s a late-campaign distraction Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer vigorously tried to head off, even to the point of enlisting a private investigator.

With less than four weeks left, the Republican has found himself confronting a recently filed malpractice lawsuit by a former client, Steven Hackbarth, who says the Delano attorney mishandled his case. The candidate’s allies have challenged Hackbarth’s credibility, accusing him of filing, in the words of Emmer’s personal attorney, a “shakedown lawsuit” that lacks merit.

“The political motivation behind this lawsuit is painfully clear,” Emmer attorney Michael Schwartz said Friday. “If Tom Emmer wasn’t running for governor, there’s no way in the world this lawsuit would have been brought.”

Splashy allegations often surface late in races, sometimes lodged by political opponents aiming to raise questions about a candidate’s character. Emmer is in a tight race against Democrat Mark Dayton, with the Independence Party’s Tom Horner polling in the teens.

Hackbarth describes himself as a former supporter who used his tractor to pull Emmer’s float in parades when he was running for the state House. He said he didn’t time his lawsuit to pressure Emmer and first aired his grievance privately in April. Hackbarth admits he won’t vote for Emmer next month but said he hasn’t decided who he’ll back.

The case is unlikely to be resolved before the Nov. 2 election; the next hearing isn’t scheduled until Nov. 8.

Hackbarth, the owner of a roofing company, filed the lawsuit in Wright County three weeks ago, but it didn’t receive attention until a partisan blog posted details Thursday night.

Hackbarth argues Emmer put up a shoddy defense in a 2009 civil case that ultimately cost him his contractor license and a $30,000 judgment to a company trying to recover payments for roofing supplies.

Emmer was the lawyer for Hackbarth Enterprise Corp. in a case where Hackbarth was a separately named defendant. Records show Hackbarth represented himself in court, a technicality that could doom his case because Emmer never represented the owner personally.

Hackbarth’s lawsuit says Emmer didn’t file any paperwork in the supply case and came to court unprepared. An Emmer filing said he was hired on short notice and sought more time from a judge — to no avail — to build a defense. Schwartz said Emmer couldn’t ethically put up a defense without proper evidence.

Emmer withdrew as Hackbarth’s attorney last September, a couple of months after he announced his run for governor.

In an interview Friday, Hackbarth said his lawyer reached out to Emmer in April, but was put off for months. Hackbarth said he decided that Emmer and his attorney “really didn’t want to settle anything or accomplish anything constructively” and his only option was to file the lawsuit.

Court records show Emmer developing a dual-track plan to, in the best case, avoid the malpractice filing altogether and, in the worst, undercut its legitimacy.

In late July, Schwartz hired the private investigator to look into a suspicious fire at Hackbarth’s home in early 2009, according to an affidavit. Schwartz also corresponded with Hackbarth’s lawyer, Robert Hart, in hopes of a “mutually beneficial resolution” before anything got to court.

In an Aug. 18 letter, Schwartz asked how Emmer was responsible for the outcome in Hackbarth’s case and suggested any professional negligence claim against Emmer would fail. “Again, if we are missing anything, and it comes to our attention that Emmer has in fact made a mistake, Emmer will make good on it,” Schwartz wrote.

Within days of being sued, Schwartz quickly filled the court file with documents refuting Hackbarth’s claims. Schwartz said he plans to seek sanctions against Hackbarth and Hart for filing what he sees as frivolous claims.

Campaign spokesman Carl Kuhl said Emmer has never before been accused of malpractice in his 20-year legal career.

“While Mr. Hackbarth denies political motivation, he made outrageous financial demands prior to filing his suit in the hope of leveraging Tom Emmer’s candidacy to advantage himself,” Kuhl said.

Schwartz said Hackbarth sought more than $200,000 to settle the case. Asked what he wanted, Hackbarth said: “We didn’t really put a dollar amount, but I thought he should pay for the judgment I lost because we wouldn’t have lost it if he handled it right.”

Hart, Hackbarth’s attorney, didn’t return phone calls.

Two years ago, a civil lawsuit filed in Texas shook Minnesota’s Senate race in its final weeks. The case included accusations that a friend of Republican Norm Coleman tried to improperly steer money to the then-U.S. senator. About 10 months after the election, the case was dismissed.

The existence of the Emmer lawsuit was first reported by Ripple in Stillwater, a blog critical of Minnesota Republican candidates.

Associated Press writers Amy Forliti in Buffalo, Minn., and Doug Glass in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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