Monday, November 9, 2009

Jet connected to CIA torture program has ties to Great Falls

N478GS 2 with pilot

As I reported in the dead tree edition of the Tribune this morning, a private Gulfstream IV jet tied to the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program is owned by a Great Falls company—an apparent shell company for L-3 Communications, the nation’s sixth-largest defense contractor.

I thought I’d expand on the article a bit here with some hyperlinks to some interesting components of the story.

The Great Falls company, called L-3 IS (the IS stands for Integrated Systems), appears to only exist on paper. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, L-3 IS incorporated in May of 2006, but the company doesn’t appear to have a physical address, and it’s only known employee is Great Falls attorney Gary Bjelland. Bjelland, listed as the registered agent for the company, referred all questions about the company to an attorney in Alexandria, Va., who did not respond to calls seeking comment. It appears to exist only to register the Gulfstream IV, tail number N478GS.

I first heard about this jet back in 2006 when I was working at the Missoula Independent. A reader pointed us to a story in the Chicago Tribune that described how the elusive jet crash landed at an airport in Bucharest in 2004 with seven passengers—one carrying a gun—on board, triggering an inquiry by the European Parliament into the aircraft’s possible connection to the CIA’s rendition program.

From the 2006 Chicago Tribune article (the links and emphases are mine):

At the time of the accident, FAA records show, the plane was owned by Braxton Management Services of Great Falls, Mont. Commercial databases give the company’s business address as that of the Great Falls attorney who filed Braxton’s Montana corporate registration–in short, a paper company with no officers or directors.

The lawyer did not respond to repeated inquiries by the Tribune over several months, including why an airplane owned by a Montana management company was based in Fayetteville, N.C., where the airport serves Ft. Bragg,home of the Army’s Special Operations Command.

A secretary at the law firm said Tuesday that the reason for the non-response was that “We don’t know anything about Braxton” and the firm’s only function has been to keep its Montana registration current.

Since the Bucharest accident, Braxton has been replaced as the Gulfstream’s owner by what appears to be another paper company, whose business address is a different law office in Great Falls [L-3?]. The lawyer in that office [Bjelland?] who serves as the successor company’s registered agent referred all inquiries to a lawyer in Alexandria, Va., who did not respond to the Tribune’s calls and e-mails.

The Chicago Tribune piece contains another very interesting piece of this rather large and convoluted puzzle:

According to FAA flight data records, Gulfstream N478GS re-entered service on June 13 of this year (2006) with a flight from Savannah, Ga., to Fayetteville. But what happened to the airplane between the accident and then remains a mystery.

According to the Romanian transport ministry, the damaged plane’s owners arranged to have the Gulfstream loaded aboard a giant Ukrainian-built Antonov cargo aircraft, larger than anything in the U.S. military inventory, and flown out of Romania for repairs at an estimated cost of $250,000.

Only a handful of private companies throughout the world offer Antonov-class aircraft for rent. All the companies told the Tribune they were not involved in removing the Gulfstream from Romania.

An industry source who asked not to be identified said that the only other Antonovs of sufficient size to carry a Gulfstream were operated by the air forces of Russia, Libya and Abu Dhabi. After checking with others in the industry, the source concluded that those three countries had not been involved either.

The most significant aspect of this story, in my mind, is that the owner of this plane—whoever that may be—doesn’t want people to know what it is used for. They have gone to great lengths to conceal it’s ownership and it’s flight logs. L-3 IS’s only known employee refuses to explain what the company is, or does, in Great Falls, or why their jet keeps showing up in the international press connected to the CIA’s program of kidnapping suspected terrorists and flying them by private jet to prisons in countries that turn a blind eye toward torture.

For those of you who are interested in reading more, here are some interesting links related to L-3 IS’s mysterious Gulfstream IV.

  • Here’s a link to a story from the Fayetteville Observer about the CIA’s use of private charter jets for extraordinary rendition missions. It mentions N478GS.
  • Shannonwatch is an Irish human rights group that tracks flights in and out of Shannon Airport, which is believed to be a refueling spot for CIA rendition flights. They have lots of information on the CIA’s use of Shannon airport, including logs documents N478GS stopvers.
  • This 2005 New York Times article does a great job of explaining how the CIA uses private charter flights to hide their rendition activities.
  • Here’s a lengthy Q&A on rendition from Amnesty International.
  • Here’s a .pdf link to the European Parliament’s working document investigating the CIA’s use of European airports and airspace for rendition missions.

If any readers out there have any more information on this jet, or L-3 IS of Great Falls, I’d love to hear about it. Send info to jadams (at)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Waiting on a DREAM

Reaction to my Sunday feature on Carlos Rivera’s complicated dilemma has been interesting to say the least.

For those who missed it, I wrote a story about how Rivera, a 27-year-old international business student at the University of Montana, is facing deportation. Rivera’s mother brought him to the U.S. in1988 when he was just 6 years old. He’s been in the country ever since. By all accounts Rivera is an upstanding young man who has forged a successful career in business and is on his way to completing his college degree.

But last year he came to the attention of immigration officials and now he’s facing the prospect of returning to a country he hardly even remembers. His immigration hearing is in January.

Rivera’s hopes of staying in the country and finishing his degree could rest on the passage DREAM Act, a bill before Congress that would create a path toward citizenship for people in Rivera’s position.

The idea behind the act is simple: immigrant students who arrive in the country as children, graduate from a United States high school, stay out of trouble with the law and have been in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment, can have the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency.

The Senate debated a version of the bill in 2007, but it fell eight votes short of the number needed to overcome a filibuster by senators opposed to the measure.

The act has been introduced again, but it's unclear if or when Congress will resume debate on the measure. Supporters of the bill estimate that they still are eight votes shy in the Senate.

Critics of the DREAM Act say is an attempt to create broad amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Roy Beck is executive director and founder of Washington, D.C.-based NumbersUSA, an organization that lobbied against the 2007 version of the DREAM Act and opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Beck said he's sympathetic to Rivera's situation, but added that the DREAM Act is not an appropriate path to citizenship for immigrant children who were brought to this country by undocumented parents.

"You can take a lot of these individuals and you can make a compelling case for their story," Beck said. "If it was just this guy, I've got no problem with this guy being given amnesty. But there are apparently about 500,000 of these people in this country."

Beck said the DREAM Act, as written, contains loopholes that would allow people who receive amnesty under the law to apply to have their family members put on a path toward citizenship.

He said that would lead to massive fraud and open the door to thousands of new immigrants who could pour into the country in order to take advantage of the amnesty provisions in the law.

"When you allow people to break the law, and then allow them to harvest what they broke the law to get, you encourage more illegal activity," Beck said.

There are legitimate arguments to be made on all sides of the immigration debate. However, one of the criticisms that pops up over and over in the comments section on Sunday's story has to do with illegal immigrants not paying taxes while benefiting from those who do.

According to this USA Today article, not only do many illegal immigrants pay taxes, but they may be paying more taxes than they owe, and they don’t collect the benefits:

The tax system collects its due, even from a class of workers with little likelihood of claiming a refund and no hope of drawing a Social Security check.

Illegal immigrants are paying taxes to Uncle Sam, experts agree. Just how much they pay is hard to determine because the federal government doesn't fully tally it. But the latest figures available indicate it will amount to billions of dollars in federal income, Social Security and Medicare taxes this year. One rough estimate puts the amount of Social Security taxes alone at around $9 billion per year.

Paycheck withholding collects much of the federal tax from illegal workers, just as it does for legal workers.

The Internal Revenue Service doesn't track a worker's immigration status, yet many illegal immigrants fearful of deportation won't risk the government attention that will come from filing a return even if they might qualify for a refund. Economist William Ford of Middle Tennessee State University says there are no firm figures on how many such taxpayers there are.

"It's a mistake to think that no illegal immigrants pay taxes. They definitely do," said Martha Pantoja, who has been helping Hispanic immigrants this tax season as an IRS-certified volunteer tax preparer for the non-profit Nashville Wealth Building Coalition.

I can say from interviewing Rivera that he’s not looking for a free ride. He wants to earn his degree and become a productive member of society just like every one of his American classmates. He grew up in the United States from the age of six and has thought of himself as a U.S. citizen his entire life. Was he na├»ve about the consequences of living in the U.S. as an undocumented alien once he learned of his status? Sure. I think he’d admit that. Does that make him a bad person worthy of the kinds of attacks I’ve read in the comments to the story? Certainly not.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Still blogging, just busy

Just a note to let faithful Lowdown readers know that I haven't given up the blog, I've just had a lot going on lately and haven't had time to focus on additional writing. I plan to refocus on a blog a bit more next week, so sit tight and thanks for you patience. Keep checking back. Also, if you don't already follow The Lowdown on Twitter, please do. That's probably the best way to find out when I've posted new material.

You can follow The Lowdown on Twitter here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rehberg to MT press: "I saw no signs of impairment" of boat driver who crashed on Flathead Lake, injuring five

Congressman Denny Rehberg spoke to members of the Montana press this morning for the first time since the boat crash two weeks ago that left him and four others seriously injured.
Rehberg talked for almost an hour about the events surrounding the crash.
You can download a Windows Media audio file of the complete conference call here.
Rehberg told reporters that he didn't have any reason to believe that Kalispell Sen. Greg Barkus, the driver of the boat, was impaired when he got behind the wheel and attempted to drive Rehberg and his two staffers back to their hotel on the other side of the lake.
“It would be like me talking to you right now,” Rehberg said. “I have no idea what anybody else felt. We can go through and second guess ourselves forever on this thing, but as far as I could tell I saw no signs of impairment at all. None.”
Rehberg said he had one glass of Kettlehouse Cold Smoke Scotch Ale and part of another while meeting with dinner guests at an evening get-together in Lakeside, but he said he did not observe Barkus drinking alcohol at any point that evening.
“I could not honestly tell you whether he had a drink or not.”
He said Barkus’ wife, Kathy, had small cooler on the boat that contained 12 ounces or less of margarita.
“When we first got in the boat, Kathy had a little cooler of about, oh it looked like 12 oz. or less of margarita. That was the extent of what I know was on the boat. I’m not aware of anything else.”
Rehberg said Barkus was using a GPS device to navigate across the lake to the Marina Cay Resort on Bigfork Bay. Rehberg said he recalls Barkus indicating that something “doesn’t seem right,” shortly before boat struck the rocks.
Rehberg said he didn’t think that Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan’s assertion that the boat was traveling at a speed of about 40 mph when it crashed on the rocks was correct.
“I’m no judge, because I was not paying attention and there’s nothing really to gauge it by, but to me, I’ve water skied, and I’ve water skied at 30-40 miles mph, and I wouldn’t suggest this was water skiing speed,” Rehberg said. “It’d have been a lot colder, your hair would have been flipping around a lot more.”
I’ll have more on Rehberg’s press conference in tomorrow’s Great Falls Tribune.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Details of Baucus health care plan coming to light

ABC News Senior Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl has seen a draft of Baucus' proposed health care bill in the Senate Finance Committee. Baucus was reportedly going to meet with the so-called "Gang of Six" this afternoon and give them a take-it-or-leave it proposition for the bill, according to George Stephanopoulos.

According to Karl, here are some of the key points in the bill:

- By 2013, Americans would be required to have health insurance or pay a fine. Depending on income level, the fines could be as high as $3800 per family.

- Native Americans, the very poor and those with religious objections are exempt from this new mandate.

- There’s no mandate on companies to provide insurance to their employees.

- Health insurance companies bear a big share of the costs with two new taxes:

  • A $6 billion annual tax that will be divided among companies based on market share
  • A tax on so-called Cadillac plans; insurance plans valued at more than $8,000 for individuals or $21,000 for a family of four.

- Expansion of Medicaid to those up to 133 percent of the poverty level.

- Federal subsidies to help those up to 300 percent of the poverty level buy insurance

- No new government-run insurance program, aka “public option”

- As an alternative to the public option, the bill creates and funds non-profit “cooperatives” that will provide insurance coverage

- New regulations on insurance companies: e.g. Bans denial of coverage or higher rates b/c of pre-existing conditions. Insurance companies would still be allowed, however, to charge higher rates for smokers.

Baucus' plan is already taking a heat from the left.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, President Obama was meeting with Democratic leaders on the eve of his major health care speech tomorrow to plot a strategy for pushing health care reform forward. The White House wouldn't comment on how Baucus' plan fits into the mix.
Administration officials have declined to discuss in depth either Mr. Baucus’s plan or the president’s speech, which Mr. Obama will deliver Wednesday night to a joint session of Congress. But the officials welcomed Mr. Baucus’s draft as important progress just as lawmakers are returning this week from their summer recess.
Stay tuned.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Prosecutor: Boat pilot was drinking the night of crash that injured Rehberg and four others

The latest from the Associated Press:

The Flathead County attorney says state Sen. Greg Barkus was drinking the night of the boat crash that severely injured U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and three other passengers.

Authorities are awaiting results of blood tests from the state crime lab, and delivery of Barkus' medical records before determining whether to file charges. County Attorney Ed Corrigan has said he is weighing felony charges.

A critical piece of information will be whether or not Barkus' blood alcohol level was above the legal limit of 0.08 for a vehicle operator.

Corrigan says he hopes to get that information in the next week or so.

Driving records show that Barkus was pulled over for drunk driving a few years ago, an arrest that resulted in a conviction of reckless driving.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

AP: Flathead Co. Attorney “weighing felony charges” against Barkus

This just in from the Associated Press:

Authorities say that state Sen. Greg Barkus was driving his boat at 40 miles per hour when it crashed into a rocky cliff on Flathead Lake last week, injuring U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and three other passengers.

Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan also says he is awaiting results of a test for Barkus’s blood-alcohol level from the state crime lab in Missoula. Corrigan has said that he is weighing felony charges in the case.

I don’t know how many of you have ever been in a open-bow motorboat, but I grew up driving a boat very similar to the one that crashed last week. Driving 40 mph feels like you're flying on open water. That’s quite a bit faster than you would typically pull a water skier. This incident is mind blowing. I can’t believe nobody was killed.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New info on Flathead Lake Crash

OK, so I guess the headline might be a little deceiving because quite honestly, there isn't much new news to report at all. The Flathead County Sheriff's Office is still saying very little and State Sen. Greg Barkus, the man behind the wheel of the boat that crashed high on the rocks on the shore of Wayfarers State Park, refuses to talk to authorities or the press.

Meanwhile, we still don't have any indication from the Flathead County Sheriff's Office as to whether they think alcohol played a role in the crash. If you look here, here, here, here, and here (these are just a handful of recent examples) you'll notice that authorities in these cases stated whether or not they believed alcohol was factor in the crash within a day or two of the incident. That's almost always the first question investigators try to answer in an incident like this, and it's usually found in the first or second paragraph of any crash write-up in the newspaper. I would think that after interviewing people who were on the boat, people who were at the dinner party in Lakeside earlier that night and officers and emergency personnel at the scene of the crash authorities should have some indication by now as to whether or not Barkus had been drinking. It's been nearly a full week since the crash--which left five people injured including a sitting U.S. congressman and a state senator and left one victim in what appears to be a coma--and the authorities have still not answered the most burning question about this case. And that's even after said congressman, Denny Rehberg, admitted the day after the crash that he had been drinking at a dockside dinner with Barkus earlier that night.

The issue is whether Barkus was impaired at the time of the crash. Police apparently did not test the victims at the scene. Understandably, their priority was getting the severely injured passengers to the hospital ASAP. Once at the hospital, any blood tests done on Barkus or anyone else immediately becomes part of their medical record, which is protected under the federal HIPAA. Barkus appears to be resisting the release of those records to authorities, because the Flathead Co. Sherrif's Office had to issue a subpoena for them.

Barkus' medical records have been subpoenaed, so hopefully we'll be able to clear this up once and for all by the end of the week.

Here's something to consider when thinking about BAC: it goes down shortly after you stop drinking. So for instance, in Rehberg's case, his BAC was .054, or about .026 below the legal limit, when doctors drew his blood at 12:58 a.m. That was about 2 hours and 40 minutes after the crash occurred. According to the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, BAC decreases at a rate of about .015-.020 per hour. So let's assume Rehberg weighs somewhere between 160 to 180-pounds. For a male that size, in 2 hours and 40 minutes his BAC would have decreased by approximately .03 to .04. So, at the time of the crash, Rehberg's BAC was likely over the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle.

However, I want to stress that Rehberg, by all accounts, was never behind the wheel of the boat, so whether or not he was legally impaired or not is not the issue here. Authorities have already said they don't expect any charges against Rehberg.

But people still have a lot questions that need to be answered.


This is an interesting tidbit that the Missoula Independent dug up about Barkus' 2005 reckless driving charge:

We've since learned, through a report with Lake County Justice Court obtained by Indy staff reporter Jessica Mayrer, that Barkus was originally charged with DUI. He was operating a 2000 white Corvette with vanity plates reading "DREAM IT." Barkus was stopped going 84 mph in a 65-mph zone and found to be under the influence.(emphasis added)

He subsequently pleaded not guilty and was convicted of reckless driving, a misdemeanor.

So it appears this isn't the first time Barkus has hired Kalispell attorney Todd Glazier to represent him in a sticky situation.

For those who are interested, here's a copy of the two tickets Barkus received for his reckless driving incident in Lake County:

Also, James Connor at the Flathead Memo has an interesting hypothesis about the conditions Barkus and his ill-fated passengers faced as they left the dock at Lakeside Thursday night. It's worth a read. Here's a snip:
The end of astronomical twilight was still 20 minutes away when Barkus pointed his boat northeast and advanced the throttle. As the U.S. Naval Observatory notes, “…for a considerable interval…before the end of evening [astronomical] twilight, sky illumination is so faint that it is practically imperceptible.” To the northwest, various objects would be faintly silhouetted against against the residual light, but the lake’s eastern shore was much darker. Light from the moon may have provided some help, and there may have been a moon streak on the water that commanded the attention of some on board. Full dark adaptation of the human eye requires 20–30 minutes; longer if exposed to bright light while adapting.
That's all for now. Keep checking back. I'll keep you updated on developments as soon as we have them.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Rehberg's BAC

Here are the results of Congressman Denny Rehberg's blood alcohol analysis. According to the report, the analysis was done at 12:58 a.m., approximately two and a half hours after the crash reportedly occurred.

It shows his BAC was .054 at the time of the test.

Clarification on “stonewalling”

I just wanted to clarify a Twitter post I made earlier, but first a little background…

A lot of Denny Rehberg’s political enemies have been trying to make hay out of Thursday’s tragic boat accident, which left five people injured, including one staffer who suffered a serious head/brain injury.

I’ve received multiple messages and Twitter posts insinuating that the Montana media is not doing an adequate job of exposing some unstated but alleged wrongdoing on behalf of Rehberg. There is a certain faction of Rehberg’s political rivals who want the press to blame Rehberg for what happened out on the lake last week.

There just aren’t enough facts to determine what, exactly, actually happened out on that lake that night.

Earlier today I posted a Twitter message mentioning the fact that I felt there was an unusual degree of “stonewalling” surrounding the facts in this case. That comment stemmed from the fact that I and other reporters were not having our calls returned by authorities from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department, FWP, or the county attorney’s office. I have since talked to the county attorney’s office. As far as I know, no Montana reporter has received any comment from Barkus’ attorney.

I just don’t want my post to be misconstrued to suggest that anyone from Rehberg’s office has been “stonewalling” the press. Erik Iverson and Jed Link have done a good job of keeping the press informed.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Audio from press conference re: Reberg boat crash

Here's a link to a WMA download of today's telephone press conference with former Rehberg chief of staff Erik Iverson. Iverson, a longtime family friend of the Rehberg's, was at the hospital in Kalispell where Rehberg was undergoing surgery to repair a broken ankle.

Iverson confirmed that the two staffers who were on the boat with Rehberg were Dustin Frost, Rehberg's state director, and Kristen Smith, Rehberg's health care policy advisor. Iverson did not give any information about the Smith or Frost's condition. He also did not comment on the condition of Sen. Greg Barkus or Kathy Barkus.

Read tomorrow's Great Falls Tribune for the latest information on this incident.

More photos of Rehberg boat crash site

These photos are courtesy of Montana Public Radio Flathead reporter Katrin Frye, who was on the scene this morning. Tune into MTPR Capitol Reporter Emilie Ritter and Flathead Reporter Katrin Frye's report at 5:30 p.m. for more on the accident. Be sure to read tomorrow's Great Falls Tribune for the latest.

Rehberg stable after serious boat crash on Flathead Lake

For those of you who follow The Lowdown closer than the Tribune Web site, here's the latest report on Rep. Denny Rehberg's late-night boat crash, including some links.

Congressman Denny Rehberg and state Senate Majority Whip Greg Barkus of Kalispell are in stable condition at Kalispell Regional Medical after sustaining injuries in a late-night boating crash on Flathead Lake Thursday.

According to Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional director Jim Satterfield, Rehberg, Barkus, and three adults were injured when the 22-foot motorboat they were riding in crashed on the rocks on the shore near Wayfarers State Park on the north east end of Flathead Lake.

According to a Washington Post report, Barkus’ wife, Kathy, and Rehberg’s state director, Dustin Frost, were among those injured in the crash. The identity of the fifth passenger, also a Rehberg staffer, has not been released.

The crash happened sometime after 10 p.m. Campers who were near the scene heard the crash and called 911, Satterfield said. The boat, a fiberglass hulled inboard motorboat, was completely out of the water and resting at a steep angle among cliffs and rocks on shore.

Responders from the Big Fork Fire Department were first on the scene, Satterfield said. Three people were flown to the hospital by helicopter, however department officials didn’t know if Rehberg was among those who were transported by air. The others were taken to the hospital via ambulance. All five are in stable condition.

Satterfield said FWP boating accident experts are investigating the incident along with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and the Montana Highway Patrol.

“We’ll be looking at how fast the boat was going, who was driving, whether alcohol or drugs were involved, whether they have the proper number of life jackets on the boat. Those are the things we look at when we have a routine boating accident like this,” Satterfield said.

Satterfield said it could be several days before more information on the accident is released.

The park remains closed while officials investigate the scene.

Jed Link, Rehberg’s press secretary, issued the following statement around noon Friday:

“Last night Congressman Rehberg and two members of his staff were passengers in a boat that was involved in an accident on Flathead Lake near Bigfork. Denny is in stable condition and is doing well. His thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved. We will continue to provide information as it becomes available.”

State Sen. Gary Perry, a good friend of Barkus, said he had just heard about the crash and was getting ready to go to the hospital. Perry, from Manhattan, said he knew little about Barkus' condition.

“It's a tragic accident,” Perry said. “We're praying for him.”

Rehberg has conducted 16 listening sessions around Montana during the congressional break and was scheduled to be in Cut Bank and Shelby today. Both of those sessions have been canceled. On Friday, Rehberg announced seven more sessions for next Tuesday through Thursday. Rehberg was in Great Falls on Tuesday along with Sen. Jon Tester for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Benefis Health System's new $85 million Patient Tower.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

MT Dems to Baucus: “Public Option at minimum”

Montana Maven covered the bulk of the details here, and I wrote about it here. But I wanted to post a little background and make sure everyone had a chance to see the actual documents (links below).

Here’s some background from Montana Maven:

It has been one week since 8 Montana Democratic Central Committees delivered their resolutions for single payer or a strong public option in a health care bill to President Obama and Senator Baucus at the Belgrade Town Hall Meeting in Montana on August 14. More central committees were holding meetings to vote on their own resolutions and the count is now at 18. (Out of our 56 counties in Montana, 11 counties do not have a central committee and 10 are pretty much non-functional, so these 18 represent a whole lot of activists). Many chairs of the committees, like myself,had been frustrated much like our founding brothers because "our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury and neglect". Yes we had all received the same form letter from the Baucus office even when we asked very specific questions.

Here’s a link to one of the letters Maven references in the last couple of sentences. Here’s the nut graf from the letter in question:

At our monthly meeting on July 9, the Carbon County Democratic Central Committee came to the unanimous opinion that health care reform in America must contain, at a minimum, the offering of strong public option. We believe that a strong public option as part of a larger federal health insurance exchange is the MINIMUM measure necessary to facilitate any type of meaningful reform, and cost containment. Although not as ideal as a single payer option, a strong public
option is a feasible compromise, and has broad public support both nationally and here in Montana. In order for a strong public option to effectively result in reform and cost containment it must include the following components:

  • National coverage
  • Available to all Americans
  • Portability
  • Publicly run and administered with full transparency and accountability to congress
  • No exclusions for preexisting conditions

Eighteen of the state’s 45 Democratic central committees signed on to a “unified statement” basically endorsing the ideals listed above. Here’s a link to a full copy of that statement.

Here’s the press release that accompanied the unified statement.

That’s all.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cost Cutters wants employees to forfeit right to unionize

This is from a story I wrote in Sunday’s Tribune. I posted it here because I thought some readers may want to read the full text of the document employees were asked to sign. You can find it here, or at a link further down in the story.

A former manager of a Great Falls hair salon said she and her employees were pressured by corporate officials to sign an agreement that would nullify any future attempts to unionize the store.

Keri Gorder left her job at Cost Cutters, which was formerly Hair Masters, shortly after managers for Regis Corp. asked employees of the company to sign a "Protection of Secret Vote Agreement."

The one-page agreement states in part that, "In order to preserve my right to a secret ballot election, and for my own protection, I knowingly and without restraint and free from coercion sign this agreement revoking and nullifying any union authorization card I may execute in the future."

Gorder, who worked at the 10th Avenue South salon for eight years, said employees were called into a meeting earlier this month where managers played a video aimed at convincing them to resist unionizing.

"They were trying to scare the staff into signing that paper," Gorder said. "I don't feel like my staff or I should have signed it or should have had to sign it."

Gorder said she was pressured by her boss days later to get her staff to sign the document.

"She said, 'I would do what the company wants you to do,'" Gorder said.

A spokeswoman for Regis declined to comment for this story.

Ole Stimac, president of the Central Montana Central Labor Council, said the agreement is misleading and could violate the National Labor Relations Act.

"What it looks like they're trying to do is get people to sign a waiver of their rights from now into eternity to ever organize a union. I've never seen anything like this before," Stimac said.

The agreement states that union organizers could use authorization cards to strip employees' right to a secret ballot election. It also states that Regis could use the signed agreement to disqualify a signatory's vote in favor of forming a union.

Stimac called that language "laughable."

"This whole thing is written in circles and has falsehoods in it. I don't know why they would ever think that this could stand up in court," Stimac said. "If a person could sign their rights away like this I would find it deeply troubling."

For the full story, read Sunday’s Tribune.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Montana makes headlines on America's most trusted news show

America's most trusted television news anchor, Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, gives his take on Obama's town hall on Friday.

My favorite line:
"Mr. President, I can't tell if you're a Jedi 10 steps ahead of everything, or if this whole health care thing is kicking your a** just a little bit..."

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Heal or No Heal - Medicine Brawl
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

Monday, August 17, 2009

Schweitzer touts Canadian-style health care

Beyond the protests and the obvious attention paid to President Barack Obama's visit on Friday, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer made some headlines of his own with his ringing endorsement of the Canadian single-payer health care system.

Bucking the obvious "no one's talking about government run health care" message coming from the Obama and Baucus camps, Schweitzer gave a rousing speech on the virtues of the Canadian single-payer system, in which the government picks up the health care tab for its citizens.

From where I was sitting (tucked safely behind all the national media types in the far back corner of the room) Schweitzer’s praise of former Saskatchewan Premiere Tommy Douglas — the "father" of Canada's single-payer health care system — was a huge hit.

Here’s the complete video (sorry I couldn’t zoom in more, but as a local print journalist I was relegated to the cheap seats in the way back):

That wasn't the first time Schweitzer touted a national universal health care system. At a debate in Helena last September Schweitzer bemoaned the fact that the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, was ranked 37th when it came to health care for it’s citizens:

“The next president of the United States will deliver a universal health care for all of the United States. We don’t need a study in Montana, we a national health care system that is affordable, accessible for every American family.”

Here’s the audio from that Sept. 25 debate:


Scenes from the 'Free Speech Zone'

Below you'll find a short video of the competing demonstrations at Barack Obama’s health care town hall in Belgrade on Friday.

There were some differing accounts of the demonstration, the civility of the crowd, etc. so I thought I’d just post some video of what I saw during the 45 minutes or so that I wandered the parking lot before I had to head to the Secret Service checkpoint to get my press credentials for the main event.

You can read my account of the demonstrations in Saturday’s Great Falls Tribune. I should note that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the headline’s assertion that the demonstrators were “civil.” The town hall itself was mostly packed with Obama supporters, so it didn’t turn into a shout fest inside the airplane hanger. However, the demonstrations--which took place about a quarter mile from the hanger itself--were far less civil. You can see from the signs in the video the stark contrast between the pro-reform and anti-reform activists.

I need to make it clear that these demonstrations went on throughout the Obama town hall. Due to Secret Service security protocols, any journalist covering the town hall had to be through the security checkpoint and have our bags swept by Secret Service agents and K-9 units hours before the event started. Which means I missed the vast majority of the demonstrations taking place in the parking lot. I’ve since heard from a number of sources who said things got pretty ugly throughout the day. One pro-reform demonstrator texted me after he ended up with a bloody lip and a loose front tooth after a woman pushed his bull horn into his face.

Here’s the video:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

784 tickets snapped up in a hurry for Obama's Bozeman town hall

I just got back from Belgrade and Bozeman where hundreds of people lined up to get tickets to President Barack Obama’s health care town hall meeting tomorrow. Here are a few notes from the scene. (Their will be more in tomorrow’s Great Falls Tribune).

I arrived at the Belgrade City Hall at about 8:15 a.m. By the time I parked my car and walked the three blocks to City Hall, the hundreds of people who were in line were already dispersing. The media advisory said tickets would be made available at 9 a.m., but by 8:15 a.m. they were all snapped up.

The man who was informing people in line that the tickets were gone said there were only 150 tickets available at the Belgrade City Hall.

Most of the people who got the tickets had been in line since yesterday afternoon. Great Falls resident Walter Brown, 86, and his wheelchair-bound grandson, Patrick McCarthy, 21, were in line by 4 p.m. Wednesday. (More on Walter and Patrick in tomorrow’s Trib).

The vast majority of people in line—including those who got tickets—appeared to be Obama supporters. I did talk to a Helena couple opposed to the President’s health care plan who got tickets. I didn’t get the sense that there were many opponents—Tea Party members or otherwise—waiting in line for tickets.

By the time I got to Bozeman, at about 9:05 a.m., the line at city hall was gone. There were still a few people standing around signing petitions in favor of health care reform, but the tickets went fast. The police officers who were managing the scene said there were only 634 tickets available. Since each person could get two tickets, that means only 317 or so were lucky enough to get tickets in Bozeman, and 75 people scored tickets in Belgrade.

I called the White House press office to try to find out how many people in all will be invited to the event, but I haven’t heard back. Rumor has it there will be a lot more than 784 people at the event, but I haven’t confirmed that.

Keep checking The Lowdown for the latest information and be sure to read tomorrow’s Great Falls Tribune for news and analysis of President Barack Obama’s health care town hall. I'll bring the laptop and hopefully I'll be able to do a bit of blogging from the scene. No promises on that front though. It could get crazy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Obama town hall details, ticket information released

Just in from White House press office:

First Family to Arrive in Montana, President Obama to Hold Health Care Town Hall

WASHINGTON – On Friday August 14, 2009, President Barack Obama and the First Family will arrive in Montana and President Obama will hold a town hall meeting in Belgrade. At the President’s town hall, he will discuss how under health insurance reform, insurance companies will be prohibited from dropping or watering down insurance coverage for those who become seriously ill. To read more about consumer protections under health insurance reform, click here: LINK.

After Montana, the First Family will travel to Yellowstone, WY and Grand Junction, CO where the President will hold a town hall on eliminating unlimited out of pocket costs such as co-pays and deductibles. They will also travel to the Grand Canyon and Phoenix, AZ before returning to Washington. Earlier this week, the President held a town hall in Portsmouth, NH that was focused on how under health insurance reform, there will be no discrimination for pre-existing conditions – that insurance companies will be prohibited from refusing you coverage because of your medical history.

[The event is at the Belgrade Airport]

Gates Open: 10:45 a.m. local time

Program Begins: 12:55 p.m. local time

Members of the general public: The event is free and open to the public. Tickets are required and will be available at the following ticket distribution location beginning at 9:00 a.m. Thursday, August 13. Tickets will be limited to two per person and will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Bozeman City Hall

121 N Rouse St.

Bozeman, MT 59715

Belgrade City Hall

91 E Central Ave.

Belgrade, MT

For security reasons, do not bring bags and limit personal items. No signs or banners permitted. All attendees will go through airport-like security. Due to limited space at the event the White House will only be able to fulfill a limited number of requests for tickets. Tickets are not for sale or re-sale.

General Public Parking: Limited, but on site.

Obama’s Bozeman town hall will be public, ticket details coming soon

I just got off the phone with the White House press office. They’re still not giving out any details about President Barack Obama’s visit to Bozeman on Friday, but they did confirm that he will indeed be hosting a town hall meeting on health care reform.

This from a White House spokesman:

“(Obama) will be talking about health care, specifically talking about how under health care reform insurance companies won’t be able to drop or water down insurance coverage if you become ill…”

According to the spokesperson the event will be open to ticketed members of the public. Event details and ticketing information should released later today or early tomorrow morning. I’ll post the details to The Lowdown as soon as I have them.

This morning the Washington Post gave us a sneak preview of what we can expect to hear from Obama on Friday:

“On Friday, he is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting in Bozeman, Mont., to discuss the plight of people dropped from their health insurance plans because of an illness.”

"The stepped-up effort by the president comes as the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America, a grass-root advocacy group set up as a successor to his campaign apparatus, are encouraging volunteers to fan out across the country to sway reluctant lawmakers to support the proposals now moving through Congress. Supporters are also being enlisted to show up at public events with members of Congress to counterbalance the sometimes angry outbursts from opponents.”

Keep checking back for more information.

Friday, August 7, 2009

White House confirms Obama’s Montana visit

The Associated Press is reporting that the White House has confirmed that President Barack Obama will be in Bozeman next Friday, Aug. 14.

Officials are still not saying what Obama plans to do in Bozeman, but they did say the first family plans to travel to Yellowstone National Park.

I still don’t know any details of the rumored Friday town hall meeting, so please don’t call me and ask how to get tickets. I’ll post whatever details I find out here on The Lowdown.

However, I will be out of town this weekend, so if the news breaks then you’ll have to find it elsewhere. Sorry.

UPDATE: This just in from the White House:

First Family to Travel to Four Western States Next Week

WASHINGTON – The First Family will visit the Bozeman area of Montana on Friday, August 14, 2009. On August 15, they will travel to Yellowstone, WY and the Grand Junction, CO area. They will then travel to the Grand Canyon and Phoenix, AZ on August 16.

More details, including public events and coverage details, are not yet available but will be released in the coming days.

That's all folks...

Obama’s top targeter: “I’m very bullish on Montana” in 2012

Ken Strasma, founder of the microtargeting firm Strategic Telemetry, is the Democrats’ answer to Karl Rove. Strasma and his company provide microtargeting, data analysis, strategic consulting and other services to Democratic candidates.

Basically, Strasma uses a combination of telephone polling and marketing data to develop campaign messages that resonate with swing voters. Strasma was Barack Obama’s national targeting director and played a key role in Obama's success in 2008.

Strasma told Tom Schaller in an interview for that Montana is his “number one pick to flip in 2012.”

“I'm very bullish on Montana. It is currently my number one pick to flip in 2012. Energy, land-management and environmental issues are key in Montana and the Dakotas. If, after four years, voters there see that Obama’s policies aren’t the caricatures that Republicans have claimed, we should do quite well.”

Some readers over at FiveThirdyEight weren’t buying Strasma’s analysis. Many readers said Missouri has a much better chance to flip for Obama 2012 than Montana. McCain won Missouri by the thinnest of margins: 49.4 percent to Obama’s 49.3 percent. Montana was a close race, with McCain garnering 49.7 percent and Obama picking up 47.2 percent, but it was a difference of 2.5 percent. Missouri was less than two tenths of a percent.

I found this analysis, by commenter e3323 particularly entertaining:

“…I can not imagine a realistic 2012 scenario where MONTANA makes the difference between winning and losing the whole election.

Like...I cant imagine being up at 2:30AM on November 7th 2012, watching CNN and looking at the magic map with every state in red or blue but Montana and hearing Wolf Blitzer say ‘We still can not make a projection for Montana but with 89 percent of the vote in President Obama trails Newt Gingrich by 1,283 votes, however *zooms in on map* Deer Lodge County, an obama stronghold with a high Native American population, only 76 percent of the vote counted, If these numbers hold up Obama could potentially catch up to Gingrich and win the state and thus the election. Again nether candidate has reached the magic number of 270 but the winner in Montana will be the winner of the election.’”

No i'm sorry...I cant imagine THAT."

Wouldn’t that be something?

e3323 probably has a point. After all, Montana has only three electoral votes to Missouri’s 11. Seems to me the Obama campaign would go after those two tenths of a percent and 11 electoral votes in Missouri before they’d make a hard run at Montana’s 3 electoral votes.

That said, we saw Obama in Montana, what?…three times during last year's campaing? Is his visit to Bozeman next week a sign that he is already taking aim at Montana for 2012? After all, midterm elections are only 452 days away and after that the 2012 presidential race begins.

I wonder if the days of presidential candidates flying over Montana on their way to bigger and better destinations are over. If Obama's 50-state strategy pays off again in 2012, could we be entering an era in which Montana gets to play ball in every presidential election? And what does that mean for Montana in the long run? Discuss...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Weird weather in Helana causes flooding, hail trashes my garden and greenhouse

The photo above is of the weather that moved into Helena last night around sunset. It resulted in some of the most amazing sky color I have ever seen.

Check out this photo of the double rainbow behind my house (I wish I had a better camera...).

I grew up in northeastern Wisconsin, near the shores of Lake Michigan and Green Bay, so I'm accustomed to massive and powerful thunderstorms. As a kid I used to love watching the impressive lightning storms as the thunderheads rolled across the bay.

But I've never seen anything like that since living in Montana.

This afternoon, as I was sitting at my desk with a great view to the west, I saw at least two lightning strikes in the vicinity of Mt. which point I shut down and unplugged my computer and raced home to do the same. I had hopes of covering my garden and greenhouse with blankets and tarps before the hail started, but alas, I got as far as the driveway and then had to duck into my van for cover from the nearly dime-sized ice balls. (See video).

My greenhouse guarded my tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and herbs from the brunt of the hail, but the hothouse itself and the adjacent raised bed gardens weren't so lucky. Most of my large-leaf plants are Swiss cheese, and the greenhouse now has an unwanted but much more effective ventilation and irrigation system.


Anyway, here's a brief video of the storm. I wish I would have been recording as it rolled into town so you could see some of the incredible lightning and hear the non-stop thunder. It was intense. Weather service says there were about 300 cloud-to-ground strikes in less than a half hour.

You can read more in tomorrow's Tribune.

Groups opposed to Democrats' health care reform proposals plan to attend Obama event in Bozeman

President Barack Obama’s reported visit to Bozeman next week could face the same kind of disruptions Democratic members of Congress are dealing with around the country as lawmakers head back to their districts for their August recess.

As Democrats and Republicans continue to battle over national health care reform, conservative groups are descending on "town hall” meetings and doing their best to heckle Democratic lawmakers and disrupt their listening sessions.

“I had felt they would be pointless,” Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) told POLITICO, referring to his recent decision to temporarily suspend the events in his Long Island district. “There is no point in meeting with my constituents and [to] listen to them and have them listen to you if what is basically an unruly mob prevents you from having an intelligent conversation.”

Read more:

The White House won’t confirm Obama’s visit to Montana, but multiple sources are reporting that Obama plans to hold some kind of town hall meeting at an airport hanger in Bozeman on Aug. 14. Most observers believe Obama is coming to Montana to push his plan for health care reform. Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus is the Senate’s point man on reform, and so far bipartisan negotiations between three Democrats and three Republicans on the committee have failed to produce a bipartisan bill. Baucus reportedly set Sept. 15 as the deadline for the so-called “gang of six” to strike a deal on a reform bill.

Last night on NBC Nightly News, Obama indicated that if a bipartisan deal can’t be reached, then he’s willing to move forward on reform without the support of Republicans.

"I am glad that in the Senate Finance Committee there have been a couple of Republicans … who've been willing to negotiate with Democrats to try to produce a bill," Obama told NBC News on Wednesday. "But they haven't yet. And I think at some point, some time in September, we're just going to have to make an assessment."

"I would prefer Republicans working with us on that, because I think it's in the interest of everybody. It shouldn't be a partisan issue," he added in the interview. "The bottom line is the American people, the American economy, and the federal budget, have to have some sort of reforms in the health-care system. And failure is not an option this year."

You can watch the full interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd in the video lower down in this post.

Meanwhile, conservative groups opposed to Obama’s health care reform plans are now mobilizing in Montana. I just received this from “Americans for Prosperity,” a well-funded anti-reform group that also helped organize anti-tax “tea party” protests around the state and country earlier this year:

As Montana’s Congressional Delegation travels back home over the legislative recess to hear from their constituents, Americans for Prosperity’s Patients First Bus Tour will hit the road, too. The tour will urge grassroots activists to speak out on behalf of patients and against a government takeover of health care.

“Montanans are fired up about health care, and the bus tour gives more people the opportunity to come out and get involved,” said Abby Markham, spokesperson for Patients First’s Montana effort. “They’ve heard enough proposals from Washington that give government all the decision-making power. It is time for citizens to tell Congress to stop, turn around, and pursue real reforms that put patients first.”

The group plans to send a bus to the Obama event in Bozeman. You can read the full release along with bus stop dates and locations here.

According to Media Matters for America—a “Web-based, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.”—the town hall disruptions are part of an organized campaign by conservative anti-reform groups.

Conservative organizations opposed to health care reform -- including FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and Conservatives for Patients' Rights -- are conducting a campaign to turn out their supporters to attend those events. CPR has reportedly "confirmed that it has undertaken a concerted effort to get people out to the town hall meetings to protest reform," while FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity have reportedly "organized" the town hall protestors and are "harnessing social networking Web sites to organize their supporters in much the same way Mr. Obama did during his election campaign." [Greg Sargent, The Plum Line, 8/4/09; The New York Times, 8/3/09]

I’ll keep updating The Lowdown as I learn more about Obama’s visit.

Here's the NBC interview with Obama:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Obama coming to Montana

Numerous blogs are reporting that President Barack Obama will be in Bozeman next week. (I believe Missoula blogger jhwygirl of 4and20blackbirds broke the news last night.)

According to the reports, Obama will be in Bozeman on August 14 for a town hall meeting. KECI in Missoula has confirmed the reports.

Details are fuzzy, but according to 4and20blackbirds, Obama and his wife Michelle will be taking part in a town hall meeting at an airport hangar. Then Obama is supposedly heading to Big Sky—or thereabouts—to meet with Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester.

I haven’t been able to confirm any of this with Tester or Baucus’ people.

The purpose of Obama’s visit is unclear, but you could probably place a safe bet that health care reform will top the President’s agenda.

Baucus has been spearheading “bipartisan” negotiations on health care reform in the Senate Finance Committee and he’s been taking a lot of heat from the left in the process. The Hill recently reported that some liberal Democrats in Congress are threatening to implement a secret-ballot vote every two years on whether or not to strip committee chairmen of their gavels. The Hill said the move was a warning to Baucus to stop bending to GOP demands on health care legislation.

Yesterday the Washington Post reported that Obama and the Democrats are beginning to lose patience with the bipartisan negotiations.

Baucus said a bipartisan bill remains Obama's "predilection," but he said that at a White House lunch today with Democratic senators the president expressed concerns about whether the goal was attainable. A coalition of six Finance senators -- three from each party -- are seeking a deal that would produce the consensus version of health-care reform. Baucus has set a Sept. 15 deadline for the group to complete its work.

"There may come a time after some time later this year, we may have to make other decisions," Baucus said. He said Obama "wants results." "He's not going to just keep negotiating something that's not getting anywhere," Baucus said. "But that's a judgment call."

I’ll update The Lowdown as soon as I have more details about Obama’s visit to Montana.

UPDATE: Just got off the phone with the White House press office. "We don't have anything to report..." was the word from on high, but I got the sense that President Obama is planning something here in Montana. Baucus and Tester's staffers have not confirmed anything either at this point though I imagine we'll hear something this week.

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.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

“Camp Baucus” could have a raucous welcoming committee

Political donors from across the country will descend on Big Sky tomorrow for the 10th Annual “Camp Baucus” fundraiser. Here’s a link to the invitation.

But in order to get to Big Sky Resort, the site of the three-day hike/fish/horseback ride event, donors will have to drive Big Sky Highway past dozens of single-payer health care reform advocates who are steamed over the direction Congress is taking on reform.

Max Baucus, as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is the Senate’s point man on health care reform. For weeks hand-picked members of his committee have been meeting behind closed doors to hash out some a compromise on a reform bill.

At that same time, Baucus is busy raising money for his 2014 Senate campaign. Baucus’ people aren’t saying who’ll be at the event, but if you look at the list of industries that gave most to Glacier PAC in recent years you’ll find that health professionals, pharmaceutical/health products, insurance companies, and hospitals and nursing homes top the list. Organizers of Friday’s protest expect lobbyists and executives from those industries will be driving up Highway 64 on Friday.

"A lot of biggies show up at these events. When Max has a fundraiser, they show up. That's what we're trying to bring attention to," said Gene Fenderson of Helena, a retired labor leader and co-founder of Montanans for Single Payer.

Fenderson, one of the chief organizer of the rally, said protesters will line the road holding signs with slogans that read "Buy Back Baucus" as well as large scale faux checks that read "Max — A seat at the table. What does it cost? $4 million. Buy Back Our Senator!"

According to the invitation for Camp Baucus, the event is billed as "a trip for the whole family" where attendees will "enjoy Big Sky's fly fishing, golf, horseback riding and great hiking." The minimum "requested contribution" to Glacier PAC — Baucus' primary political action committee — is $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for PACs.

Baucus’ people say the event isn’t as unseemly as Fenderson and other activists make it out to be because A) Max can’t be bought, B) Camp Baucus was scheduled long before Congress got tangled up in health care reform negotiations, and C) political fundraising is a necessary part of politics.

"Max's number one priority is crafting a health care bill that lowers costs, improves quality and can pass the U.S. Senate," said Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf. "He is keeping his eye on the ball and staying focused on the task at hand to help the thousands of Montanans who are being crushed by the high cost of health care."

Reform advocates say the fact that Baucus has taken more money from the health and insurance sectors than any other Democrat in Congress — more than $3 million from the health and insurance sectors from 2003 to 2008 — should disqualify him from leading reform efforts in the Senate.

Fenderson said it's inappropriate for Baucus to hold an upscale fundraiser with lobbyists from the health care sector at a time when his committee is in the process of drafting a national health care reform bill.

"We don't get the money from the corporations to bring forward our position, so this is the way we have to do it," Fenderson said.

Here’s a link to the “action alert” for the Camp Baucus protest.