A series of emails leaked to the Lowdown by a GOP lawmaker appear to corroborate Democratic Sen. Shannon Augare’s assertion that he was in Browning doing tribal business last Friday when pandemonium broke out on the Senate floor surrounding his absence.
Augare, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said earlier that he regularly returns to Browning to take care of tribal business. Augare on Saturday told reporters that his text message notifying a caucus leader that he would be absent apparently was not received.
Augare’s absence Friday set the stage for a rare procedural gambit in which minority Democrats tried to halt Senate business in an effort to stall two proposed referendums from crossing over to the House before a critical deadline. Democrats announced on Friday they intended to make a “call of the Senate” motion, which would have stopped all Senate business until Augare could be located and returned to the Senate floor. Senate Republicans ignored the motion by Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, and moved on with 3rd reading as Democrats pounded their desks and demanded to be recognized.
On Saturday Sen. President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, initiated a an investigation into the matter to determine if Augare and Senate Democrats intentionally deceived the body.
GOP leaders argued in a special Senate Rules Committee meeting Monday that the call of the Senate is not meant to be a “dilatory” tactic aimed at disrupting Senate business. Essmann has ordered Augare, Jent, Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, and four Senate Democratic caucus staffers to appear before him at noon Wednesday. Essmann’s subpoena “demands” that those who received one testify and produce any documents or other evidence related to Augare’s absence on Friday or face possible arrest.
“If you neglect, refuse or fail to obey this subpoena the Senate may, by resolution entered in the journal, commit you for contempt, and may also subject you to arrest and brought before the Senate. Per Mont. Code Ann. S 5-5-104, the only warrant of authority necessary to authorize your arrest is a copy of a properly signed resolution of the Senate.”
Some Republicans said Sesso on the floor gave the body reason to believe there was concern for Augare’s safety.
“House (sic) Democrats would like to caucus for 15 minutes in room 355,” Sesso told the body on the floor Friday. “I am concerned about the status of my colleague. It might last a little longer but we’ll try to get back in 15 minutes and I’ll give you an update.”
Sesso, who sits next to Augare on the floor, motioned to Augare’s empty seat as he called for the caucus.
Senate Minority Leader Art Wittich told the Associated Press Saturday, "If it was a ruse, if it was deceit - we will find out about it.”
Emails circulating among lawmakers Monday appear to corroborate Augare’s assertion that he was in Browning Friday doing tribal business.
The identical emails, which are addressed to “Members of the Montana Senate,” are “to confirm that Councilman Shannon Augare of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council was conducting business in his office,” on Friday.
Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chair Willie Sharp, Blackfeet acting Police Chief Josh Bird and Derek Kline, an attorney for the Blackfeet Legal Department each sent the emails, which were addressed to Augare.
Augare declined to comment on the emails Monday.
“We don't comment on the internal workings of the tribe,” Augare said.
Reached at his home in Butte over the weekend Sesso said he was not sure whether the Democrats would comply with Essmann’s demands.
“I have barely taken a look at it myself,” Sesso said Saturday evening.
Sesso said when he walked into the Senate chamber on Friday he did not know that Augare had gone to Browning.
“I didn't know where he was. Quite frankly I was a little concerned,” Sesso said. “I understood he was in his committee in the morning, he did not tell me he was leaving.”
As of this writing a spokeswoman for Senate Democrats declined to comment on whether those who received subpoenas planned to comply with Essmann’s demand that they appear before him on Wednesday.