Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Lindeen orders “independent investigation” into workplace fundraising allegations

For those of you who missed it, my colleague Eric Newhouse wrote a lengthy piece in Sunday’s Tribune outlining allegations that Walter Schweitzer—the governor’s brother—may have violated campaign and/or ethics laws by improperly soliciting campaign contributions from employees in the State Auditor’s office on state time.

Laura McGee said she was fired as an administrator in the Auditor's Office after she complained to Lindeen that Walter solicited a contribution to help pay down Lindeen's substantial campaign debt and "verbally assaulted" her for sending an e-mail agency-wide.

As most of you who read this blog are probably aware, I wrote my own lengthy piece about Walt Schweitzer for the Missoula Independent a few years back detailing stories of Walter’s alleged political arm-twisting and bullying in the halls of the capitol. Though insiders say Walt left the capitol shortly after the Indy story ran, he has remained very active in Democratic politics. Earlier this year he was tapped by State Auditor Monica Lindeen to serve as her chief deputy.

According to Newhouse’s story, it seems Walt Schweitzer hasn’t shed his reputation as a bully.

“In a formal letter to State Auditor Monica Lindeen, dated July 15, (former employee Laura) McGee complained that Deputy State Auditor Walt Schweitzer "verbally assaulted me," and stated that he solicited campaign funds in the office, a practice prohibited by law.

"With the exception of Walt, the working environment here is spectacular, and I do hope that my truthfulness and honesty will not jeopardize my employment," McGee wrote in the letter.

...

"In February, Walt came to my office and said he was raising money for your campaign debt," McGee wrote Lindeen. "He said, you know, she did offer you this position ... I said, yes, and for that I am grateful. He then asked if I would write a check out to your campaign. So I took my checkbook out and wrote a check."

...

McGee said another fund solicitation occurred later when Schweitzer came to the office and passed out invitations to a fundraiser — dubbed the Rehberg Retirement Party — at Schweitzer's home June 25 for Dennis McDonald, a Democrat running for Rep. Denny Rehberg's seat in Congress. The "suggested donation" was $25.

"I saw him passing out invites and accepting donations outside Dave Van Nice's (office) door," McGee said in an interview last week. "I was passing by and saw and overheard it. Then when I got to my office, Walt approached Russ Wheat (an attorney for the auditor's office). I actually rode to the event with Russ."

Today Lindeen announced that she ordered “an independent review” to ensure that her staff followed state ethics policies and laws. Here's the full press release that just arrived in my mailbox:

Montana Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Monica J. Lindeen announced today that she has ordered an independent review to ensure that her staff followed state ethics policies and laws. She also stated that the federal Hatch Act is not an issue with regard to the allegations made by a former employee because it does not apply to her agency.

Last week a former employee asserted to the press that certain members of her staff may have violated the law by allegedly soliciting campaign contributions while at work. When Lindeen learned of the allegations, she ordered an internal investigation. “The agency conducted an earlier investigation, the facts of which differ from what a former employee has apparently said in the press,” said agency spokesperson, Jessica Rhoades.

It was also determined during the investigation that the Hatch Act does not apply to the agency because it receives no federal funding. Recent media reports based upon the former employee’s allegations suggesting that over 50% of the agency’s funding comes from federal funds are incorrect.

Rhoades said that in light of renewed allegations made in the press, Commissioner Lindeen has ordered an outside investigator to ensure that all internal policies and state laws were followed.

“In an abundance of caution, Commissioner Lindeen has ordered an outside independent investigator to perform a comprehensive review of the matter and ensure that all laws and policies were followed. Commissioner Lindeen also wants to take this opportunity to conduct a review of agency policies and procedures to ensure that they are in compliance with state ethics laws,” said Rhoades.

“This office works every day to protect Montana consumers. We work with state, county, and federal law enforcement officials as well as county attorneys and the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said Lindeen. “The employees of this agency have the utmost respect for the law, and we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that the actions and policies of this office advance and demonstrate that respect.”

Prior to 2007 the agency served as a pass-through or conduit for the Federal Forest Reserve Fund, monies from which were allocated to local counties. Those funds were redirected to the state Department of Administration by the Montana legislature in 2007 and were deposited there beginning July 1, 2007. No part of the agencies budget has consisted of federal funding, pass through or otherwise, since 2007. No part of the pass-through dollars funded any agency staff salary.

You can read more in Wednesday’s Tribune.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So, why no investigation of Jesse L., who regulates allegience, new west, bcbsmt and he has taken hundreds of dollars of campaign contributions from their executives, including tanya ask, mary belcher, mike frank, frank cote, steve turkewitz and others. Not to mention, he has violated the Hatch act blatantly for months. Wake up! Montana media. This guy is running for Attorney General. Just a little scrutiny please? Monica is tolerating this ???

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