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Dayton looks to senior ranks for new Human Services chief

ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton named the top attorney in his office Monday to take over the Minnesota agency that manages care for the poor and disabled, as well as runs the state's embattled sex offender program.

Emily Johnson Piper, the governor's general counsel, was named Department of Human Services commissioner, putting her atop the largest and most scrutinized agencies in state government. She replaces Lucinda Jesson, whom the Democratic governor appointed to a Minnesota Court of Appeals post last week.

In a release announcing the appointment, Dayton said Piper's legal work already has made her "deeply involved in the most significant issues affecting the department."

Human Services has more than 6,200 employees, directs billions of dollars in annual spending and operates programs affecting more than 1 million people. It oversees the state's social services, including subsidized health care programs. It also directs the high-security sex offender confinement program that is under federal court scrutiny and facing a potential overhaul.

Dayton was undergoing back surgery Monday so he left it to Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to formally introduce Piper, who was described as "a principled person, a person of integrity and an exceptionally capable manager." Away from Piper's professional roles, Smith noted the married mother of four leads a Girl Scout troop and serves as a youth basketball coach.


"No one will question her energy or her stamina as she takes on this new challenge," Smith said.

Piper said she is passionate about the health-care and disability issues before the department and ready to confront the sex offender quandary, in which the state is trying to keep dangerous offenders locked up through civil commitment without violating their civil rights.

Dayton and Jesson have resisted pressure from a federal judge to make several changes to the program aimed at releasing offenders more frequently. Piper said she expected to hold to Jesson's course, praising "all of the work she did in advancing best-practice improvements to the program."

Entering with about three years left in Dayton's final term, Piper said she still expects to put her mark on the department.

"My track record as a hard worker and a person with a strong eye for reform will guide me in how I work in the agency," she said. "Nothing about how I operate is placeholder."

Piper, 36, has served in the governor's office since last spring after several years at the state's Department of Commerce, where she rose to deputy commissioner. The new appointment, which pays $155,000 per year, is subject to confirmation in the Democrat-controlled Senate but she can begin while that vote is pending.

She intends to begin the assignment next week and set off on a tour of the state to meet with employees and stakeholders.

House Health and Human Services Finance Committee Chairman Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said he wasn't personally familiar with Piper but looked forward to working with her.


"It's the hardest job in state government," he said. "It's under incredible legal scrutiny and political scrutiny all the time."

Piper has a law degree from the University of St. Thomas. She's also the daughter of Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson and granddaughter of the late Alice Rainville, the first woman to lead that city council.

Johnson shared her pride in Dayton's selection, reflecting on the industrious and compassionate qualities of her daughter.

The general counsel post in the governor's office has been a stepping stone before. Three chief lawyers for former Gov. Tim Pawlenty went on to fill judicial seats at the governor's invitation.

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