Thursday, April 25, 2013

Eleven applicants vie for Commissioner of Political Practices post

Eight men and three women have submitted applications to become the next commissioner of political practices.
Current commissioner Jim Murry’s last day was Wednesday.
Former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed Murry to the post last year after the previous commissioner, Dave Gallik, resigned amid allegations that he used his office for private law practice work.
MurryMurry did not seek confirmation to the post, and so the search for a new commissioner began this legislative session. A job posting went out on April 16.
The commissioner of political practices is responsible for investigating alleged violations of the election laws and, with the county attorneys, for enforcing election and campaign practice and finance laws.
According to the job posting the qualifications for the job include being a citizen of the United States and a resident of Montana and, on the date of appointment, a registered voter in Montana. 
A selection committee composed of the Republican House Speaker Mark Blasdel, Republican Senate President Jeff Essmann, Democratic House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, will select a pool of candidates to interview at a May 3 meeting from those who applied. The selection committee will pick at least two and not more than five finalists to forward to Gov. Steve Bullock.
Bullock must appoint a successor within 30 days of the vacancy, but he doesn’t have to appoint someone from the list of lawmakers submit to him.
The 11 candidates who have applied for the post include:
  • James Ashmore, a business analyst for the state’s Information Systems Security Office at the Department of Administration in Helena.
  • Jeffrey Barber, government relations director for the Nature Conservancy’s Montana chapter in Helena.
  • Debra Ann Brown, of Winston, the current treasurer for the Montana Republican Party.
  • Ellen Bush, of Helena, the former executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates who most recently served as Secretary for the House Business and Labor Committee in the Legislature.
  • Russell Hart, a third-year law student at the University of Montana School of Law in Missoula set to graduate in May. Hart works as a hearings officer for the Missoula Housing Authority.
  • Robert Hoffman, of Butte. Hoffman served as an investigator for the commissioner of political practices from 2007-2010 under former commissioner Dennis Unsworth.
  • Joel Krautter, second-year law student at the University of Montana School of Law in Missoula.
  • Gary Moseman, the former managing editor of the Great Falls Tribune. Moseman retired from the Tribune last year after 30 years at the newspaper.
  • Jonathan Motl, a Helena attorney with the firm Morrison, Motl and Sherwood. Motl has represented ballot issue proponents and opponents over the years and has worked on campaign finance laws.
  • Daniel Ritter, a real estate agent with Trails West Real Estate in Lakeside. Ritter worked as an amendment coordinator and Sergeant at arms for the Montana Senate.
  • Colleen Urquhart-Fillner, a Helena freelance writer and former policy advisor to former Republican Gov. marc Racicot.
The appointment is for the completion of the 6-year term ending December 31, 2016, and the candidate will be ineligible for reappointment. The position pays $57,699 annually.
The selection committee’s May 3 meeting in Helena is open to the public. 

Bullock to let anti-abortion bill become law to block similar measure before it hits the ballot

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock plans to let a bill become law that would require underage teenage girls to get notarized parental consent before they could get an abortion.

Pro-choice advocates are cheering the move because they say it will allow them to immediately challenge the measure in court long before an identical measure get to the ballot in 2014.

The bill, House Bill 391, by Rep. Jerry Bennett, passed the Senate on a 30-20 vote and was transmitted Bullock’s office on April 15. By law the governor has 10 days after a bill gets to his desk to sign it into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.  The deadline for HB391 is today.

Anti-abortion Republicans anticipated that Bullock, a pro-choice Democrat, would veto  the measure so they also passed HB521, a legislative referendum virtually identical to HB391 that would put the question to voters in November.

By allowing HB391 to become law, supporters of abortion rights say they can immediately challenge the law in court without waiting 14 months for voters to decide.

Opponents of the parental consent bill say it would put pregnant teen girls who come from dangerous or abusive homes at risk.

“Today the Governor did what is necessary so that the courts may swiftly protect the health and safety of all Montana’s families. We commend the governor for doing what is right for Montana families,” Kelsen Young, executive director for the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, in a statement.

Stacey Anderson, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Montana said the group is committed to supporting parents as the primary “sexuality educators” of children, but she said no state law should force a teen to talk to parents about private matters.

“Laws like this can’t force teens to talk to their parents, and the sad truth is some teens live in dangerous homes and can’t go to their parents,” Anderson said.

Opponents of parental consent for abortions said the bill and the referendum are unconstitutional and will likely be struck down by the courts. They point to a similar law the courts struck down in 1995 because it violates the Montana Constitution’s strong privacy rights.

Niki Zupanic, Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Montana, said Bullock letting the bill become law was the right thing to do.

“We fought this bill in the Legislature and now we will fight it in the courts,” Zupanic said.  “The Governor has a responsibility to protect the health and safety of all Montana’s families, and that’s exactly what he did today.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Last-minute Senate GOP maneuvering threatening to derail budget deal

IMG_3363[1]Everyone wants to know what’s going on, but even we the press know very little about the last-minute tactic by the Senate GOP to try to force Gov. Steve Bullock back to the negotiating table.

What we know is this:

Last night legislative leaders and the Governor’s office worked late into the night to hammer out a deal that would satisfy the Republican leadership in both houses.

The headlines this morning proclaimed that Bullock and lawmakers hashed out the plan.

The House convened, finished up their third reading business, said goodbye and adjourned Sine Die.

The Senate then went into session, worked through the first board of business, then came back and voted on a motion to suspend the rules so that the Senate could accept Senate Bill 410. They needed a 2/3 majority because the measure missed transmittal deadline.

The amendments in SB410 are the deal. The measure contains an additional $13.5 million in spending on top of the $10 billion two-year budget bill. The $13.5 million includes spending for corrections, DPHHS,  and commerce.

The Senate voted 27-23 to suspend the rules, but that doesn’t get them the 2/3 majority needed. So the deal, essentially, was not accepted by the Senate.

After that happened, the Senate recessed and Republican Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, and Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte (and lawmakers, staffers, political hacks, and press) went into the Senate cloak room and had an impromptu debate about the negotiations.

Sesso told Wittich and Priest that the deal was a good faith deal, approved by the House, and that by voting against adopting SB410 they were essentially breaking the deal.

Priest and Wittich told Sesso that their “interests were not represented at the table.” However, Priest was intimately involved in the writing the SB410 amendments last night. Everyone I talk to said Priest was in House Speaker Mark Basdel’s office working closely on the negotiations.

Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, claimed that Senate President Jeff Essmann was not in the negotiations and therefore the Senate Leadership’s interests were “not represented.” But Sen. Rick Ripley, Chairman of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee disputed that, as did several other Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate who were in the Senate chambers.

Whether Essmann was involved in the negotiations or not is really not relevant, because its clear to everyone at the Capitol that Jason Priest is the Senate GOP point man on the Ledership’s negotiating team. Priest even told reporters that he’s in charge of any negotiations.

Here’s what’s happening as I write this:


The Senate still sits in recess.

Essmann is sitting in a chair at the front of the Senate. He doesn’t appear to be active in this process.

Wittich is posted outside House Speaker Blasdel’s office with a Senate leadership staffer and a GOP operative.

Blasdel, I’m told, has left the building.

Sesso in nowhere to be found.

Bullock is in a cabinet meeting, and the press is locked out.

Jim Molloy, Bullock’s senior advisor, told the press “there will be no negotiations.”

I’m told Blasdel is furious about what just went down in the Senate. My sources tell me Blasdel felt that the Senate’s actions violated the deal that was carefully crafted last night. He was especially incensed, I’m told, about the notion that Priest, Wittich and Essmann were somehow uninformed about the deal. I don’t know if that’s true, because Blasdel is nowhere to be found.

Wittich told me that Priest was involved in the negotiations, but that some changes took place after the Senate GOP leaders stepped away from the table. When SB410 came over the Senate it was not deal that was agreed to, Wittich claims.

Priest and Wittich refuse to tell the press what they want from the Governor’s office.

Bullock appears unwilling to engage the Senate GOP in negotiations, so it could come down to the Senate killing SB410 by not suspending the rules, then Bullock vetoes HB2 because the deal was broken.

If they don’t get this resolved today then the House, which already adjourned would have to come back. One House of the Legislature cannot adjourn Sine Die without the other House until after Day 88. We’re on Day 87, so if this doesn’t get resolved today, we’re back here tomorrow. And if it doesn’t get resolved then, well… then we’re back here for a special session.

Update: I just got more details on the Sine Die law:

In the Constitution it states:

Neither house shall, without the consent of the other, adjourn or recess for more than three days or to any place other than that in which the two houses are sitting.

But – Joint Rule 20-10. Consent for adjournment or recess:

As required by Article V, section 10(5), of the Montana Constitution, the consent of the other house is required for adjournment or recess for more than 3 calendar days. Consent for adjournment is obtained by having the house wishing to adjourn send a message to the other house and having the receiving house vote favorably on the request.

The receiving house shall inform the requesting house of its consent or lack of consent. Consent is not required on or after the 87th legislative day.

Since day 87 is burned – the three days runs us through day 90.

Pick up today’s Tribune for complete coverage on Montana Sen. Max Baucus’ retirement


Friday, April 19, 2013

Governor responds to House failure to bring Medicaid bill to the floor


Here are Gov. Steve Bullock’s prepared remarks regarding today’s House action sending HB623, the sole remaining Medicaid expansion bill, to the House Human Services Committee, where it is likely to die:

Statement of Governor Steve Bullock at the Press Conference on Medicaid Expansion

When you watch the news tonight or pick up a paper tomorrow, there’s a good chance that people will be talking about who won and who lost in the legislature today.  They’ll say that the Republican leadership “won” because they used a procedural trick to stop the will of the majority of legislators.  They’ll say that those who worked together to find compromise “lost.”

But no matter what anyone says, the winners aren’t a handful of folks in this building.  The real winners are the residents of New Jersey and Arizona who will now get to use Montana taxpayer dollars to improve the care of people in their states, while we get nothing.

And the losers aren’t the Democrats and Republicans who worked together and found a workable compromise. 

· The losers are the 70,000 Montanans who would have had access to quality, affordable care – but now will be forced to go without.

· The losers are the rural hospitals that are struggling to survive.

· It’s our economy that loses when we say “No” to $10 billion dollars in new economic activity.

· And it’s all of us who have health insurance who lose when we foot the bill for the uninsured who can’t afford preventative care, and instead end up in the emergency room where we foot the bill for the most expensive care possible.

I’ve traveled thousands of miles across our state talking about our health care system.  And I’ve met with leaders from hospitals, from major businesses, from Chambers of Commerce.  I’ve talked to doctors from all ends of the political spectrum.  I’ve talked to those who have insurance – who see their rates going up year after year – and I’ve talked to those who don’t have insurance – and are one illness away from medical bankruptcy.

Outside of this building, virtually everyone in our state gets it.  Creating jobs, expanding coverage and reforming the way we deliver health care is a good idea.

Ultimately, we’re all responsible to our constituents – that’s who we work for.  And these legislators who voted to send our tax dollars out of state are going to have to go home and tell their bosses that they stood in the way of lower health care costs, they stood in the way of good-paying jobs, and they stood in the way of access to affordable health care for tens of thousands of Montanans who desperately need it.

I’m disappointed that procedural tricks and threats of dark money attacks killed our legislative attempts.   To stand up to the “dark money” groups, it takes courageous statesmen and stateswomen.  There are some of them in our legislature and I thank them for their efforts.  But we need more.

Creating jobs and reforming our health care system are the right things to do and I’m going to keep fighting to do just that.  We’ll be working with Republicans and Democrats to find a way to expand coverage for more Montanans and to reform the way we deliver care.  I look forward to this happening soon.  We will get there.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bullock signs bill decriminalizing gays and lesbians


Supporters of gay and lesbian equality packed the Capitol rotunda Thursday to celebrate Gov. Steve Bullock's signing of a measure that makes being gay legal in Montana.

The Montana Supreme Court in 1997 struck down the arcane state law that made it illegal to have gay sex, but the law remained on the books until Bullock signed Senate Bill 107.

"I'm not going to speak too long because frankly, the longer I talk the longer this unconstitutional and embarrassing law continues to stay on the books," Bullock said.

Linda Gryczan is a LGBT activist and the woman at the center of the 1995 lawsuit that lead to the Supreme Court ruling. Gryczan thanks lawmakers, lobbyists, activists and Montana citizens who have fought for more than two decades to strike the law from the books.

"Some of you interrupted bad jokes and insults, and you have done that on the floor of the House, you've done that on the floor of the Senate, you've done that in committee and you've done that in your communities," Gryczan said. "Those small actions, repeated year after year, day after day, made this change possible."

The crowd reserved their loudest cheers for Republican Reps. Duane Ankney, of Colstrip, and Steve Gibson, of East Helena. Gibson and Ankney's impassioned speeches in favor of SB107 on the House floor last week inspired the LGBT community and their supporters.

Ankney's said during his speech that his four sons "would give their last breath" to protect his daughter's right to live her life "in the way she chooses."

"To say she is any less of a person, or she is a criminal for her lifestyle, really upsets me," Ankney said in a floor speech. "This bill is an embarrassment, the law is an embarrassment on the good people of Montana. It should go away, and it should go away as quietly as it can."

The Capitol rotunda was anything but quite on Thursday as chants of "Ankney! Ankney!" filled the dome. Supporters of SB107 handed out T-shirts featuring a black and white photo of Ankney.

"I bet you've never been cheered by so many Democrats," Gryczan said.

"It's a little scary," Ankney replied.

Sen. Tom Facey, D-Missoula, SB107's sponsor, has carried similar bills in past sessions. Facey choked back tears as he thanked those who stood before him.

"I stood on the shoulders of proponents who came from across Montana to testify in committees," Facey said. "They told their stories with heart and truth and courage."

"Our predecessors stood together for equal rights. Our children cannot even grasp why equal rights would be denied," Bullock said. "For our predecessors, and our successors, now it's up to us to stand up."

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Gun debate getting ridiculous

First off, I want to say I take no position on proposed federal firearms regulations. I happen to own firearms and hold my own set of views on their utility and how they should or shouldn’t be regulated.

I understand there are many other citizens of this country and state who do not like guns and would just as soon see them banished from the face of the earth.

There are plenty of legitimate policy disagreements on that particular white-hot issue, and that’s OK.

But when I got this “press release” today from a public relations firm it made me cringe:

Aurora and Sandy Hook: False Flag Operations?

Journey to a Brave New World, by author Dave Watts, looks at hidden evidence that suggest the two tragic shootings could be behind a government gun grab.

“We find numerous reasons to believe that these were staged and deliberate events to create a reaction of hate towards gun owners so that they can come in with the solution and attempt to disarm the people.”

Watts is available for interviews. His book, Journey to a Brave New World, is also available upon request. Can I set up an interview with the author or send you a review copy of the book?


Katy Myers

Reasonable people can have rational disagreements on all sorts of hot-button issues, including gun control.

But Mr. Watts’ attempt to cash in on the Aurora and Sandy Hook massacres by fear mongering and insinuating those heinous crimes were perpetrated by the government for political purposes is irresponsible, dangerous and sick.


A sick kid named Adam Lanza gunned down students and teachers at Sandy Hook. A sick man named James Holmes opened fire on a movie theater in Aurora. These were not covert secret agents carrying out a government plot to murder innocent people so Obama can take your guns. 

Can we please keep our policy debates – at the local, state and federal level — firmly planted in reality? Perpetuating conspiratorial fantasies for the sole purpose of riling fringe elements and fanning anti-government flames is shameful on every level.

Normally I’d put something like this in the file where I keep the letters I get from the guy who’s convinced that NorthWestern energy is using power lines to control his mind and the letters I get from a Florida gal who is convinced magical symbols are the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe.

This difference is those are somewhat amusing, but ultimately harmless, rants of irrational and likely mentally ill people. Mr. Watts is apparently a published author who has a PR firm slinging his book for him. In the minds of some anti-government whackos, that may give him a semblance of credibility.

Ms. Myers, you can strike me from your media list. I’d prefer to not get any more dispatches from crazy town. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Open party caucuses? Yeah, they’re pretty much a joke.

secret caucus

In 1995 22 news organizations – including newspapers, television and radio stations and trade and professional news associations – sued the Montana Legislature to open all Republican and Democratic House and Senate caucuses.

In 1998 District Judge Thomas Honzel ruled in favor of the news media and declared all legislative caucus meetings must be open to the public.

“Clearly, legislators gather at caucuses to discuss the public's business," Honzel wrote in his decision. "When they do so, the public has a right to observe their discussions and to be informed about what happens at those meetings."

The dirty little secret at the Capitol is that lawmakers from both parties, in both houses, have more-or-less ignored the court’s ruling…or at the spirit of the ruling. For the most part, the open caucus meetings that are announced on the House and Senate floors and held in meeting rooms during a recess in floor action are more show than substance.

The real party caucusing happens behind closed doors or at off-site locations.

Sometimes caucus leaders hold meetings at the Capitol with fewer than half the caucus members present. Without a quorum present, they can legally turn away the news media. This has happened to me in past sessions.

We in the Capitol press corps are also aware of off-site caucus meetings which place throughout the session. I’ve never been to one, but I’ve heard about them after the fact.

In past sessions I’ve seen large numbers of the House Democratic caucus walking to and from the Montana State Firemen’s Association office, which is located in house across the street from the Capitol on North Montana Ave.

I have also heard multiple tales of early-morning Senate Republican caucus meetings taking place at Jorgenson’s Restaurant and Lounge, on 11th Ave.

But as far as I know, it’s rare for an entire caucus to meet in secret, in the Capitol, during regular business hours.

At noon today I strolled onto the House floor and was surprised to see there wasn’t a single House Republican on the floor. Nor was anyone in the House leadership offices.

No one's home

I  went down to the basement “bullpen,” an area in the west end of the Capitol basement where legislators hold meetings, eat lunch and otherwise relax during the session. The House Democrats lay claim to one portion of the bullpen, and the Republicans occupy the other room.

Public not allowed

These areas are typically off-limits to the public and the press. A sign outside the door reads: “Legislators, staff and family only please!”

The door to the House GOP’s room is almost always open, so when I saw it was closed I became very curious. Without knocking I walked in and found myself in what was obviously  meeting of the full House GOP caucus, led by House Speaker Mark Blasdel.  A few members might have been absent, but I counted at least 52 GOP House members in the room. Clearly a quorum.

A House GOP staffer tried to turn me away at the door, but I showed him my press credentials and informed him that this was a party caucus meeting and thus open to the press. Montana GOP executive director Bowen Greenwood recognized me immediately and whispered something to House Majority Leader Gordon Vance, who then whispered to Blasdel, who looked in my direction and then carried on with the meeting.

My presence was immediately noted by just about everyone in the room. A few lawmakers shot me uncomfortable looks. A few appeared to be visibly peeved.

Blasdel told the caucus he expected a blast motion on Senate Bill 395, Missoula Democrat Sen. Dave Wanzenried’s Medicaid reform bill that was heard yesterday in the House Human Services Committee.

“The majority of leadership doesn’t support full expansion,” Blasdel told the caucus. “Just so you know, if that bill comes out, it is full expansion.”

Blasdel turned the floor over to Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, who talked about the key points he planned to raise on the floor in opposition to blasting SB395.

Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, thanked the caucus for “sticking together” and voting “no” on a SB375, Buffalo Republican Sen. Jim Peterson’s anti-dark money campaign finance bill.

Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, was one of 15 Republicans who joined Democrats in voting to bring the bill to the floor for debate.

“I liked the blast,” Ankney said. “Dark money is dark money.”

After the meeting, which lasted about 15 minutes, Blasdel told me House Republicans weren’t trying to hide anything by holding a caucus meeting without notice in a basement room that is off-limits to the public and the press.

“It was just trying to get people up to speed. It just drags on the floor,” Blasdel said. “There’s nothing hidden. No secret deals.”

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, admitted that Democrats, too, occasionally gather outside of the official announced caucus meetings. But Hunter denied the caucus violates the 1998 court ruling when they do get together.

“We routinely get together with members in the morning for an informal informational meeting,” Hunter said. “Members are not required to attend and we don’t have everybody there.”

Would I be turned away if I showed up?

“No. You’d likely be bored and show yourself the door,” Hunter said.

Hunter said one time this session a group of House Democrats met in numbers that did not constitute a quorum in order to discuss strategy. Hunter said when the caucus meets to take a caucus position on a bill that is done in public.

Either way, the notion that party caucus meetings are open to the press and public is pretty much a sham. Party leaders gain no advantage by disclosing their legislative strategy in the open. The real caucus whipping happens behind closed doors, often off site, and usually beyond the reach of the prying eyes and ears of the press and the public.

Need a job? State seeking new Commissioner of Political Practices

Just got a press release stating that legislative leaders are seeking applicants to serve as the next Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, the state official who oversees election and campaign finance laws.

The successful applicant will fill the remainder of outgoing commissioner Jim Murry’s term, which expires December 31, 2016. Murry, who Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed last year, did not seek confirmation from the Republican-controlled Senate. According to statute, Murry’s appointment is effective until the end of the session.

The selection committee includes Republican House Speaker Mark Blasdel, Republican Senate President Jeff Essmann, Democratic House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso.

The committee select a pool of applicants to interview at a May 3 meeting. The selection committee will select at least two, and not more than five, finalist's names to forward to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

Bullock must appoint a successor within 30 days of the vacancy. The governor is not required by law to appoint someone from from the list lawmakers submit to him.

The commissioner of political practices is responsible for investigating alleged violations of the election laws and, with the county attorneys, for enforcing election and campaign practice and finance laws. Qualifications for the job include being a citizen of the United States and a resident of Montana and, on the date of appointment, a registered voter in Montana. The appointment is for the completion of the 6-year term ending December 31, 2016, and the candidate will be ineligible for reappointment. The position pays $57,699 annually. The selection committee has scheduled a meeting May 3, 2013, in Helena which will be open to the public.

Who do you think should be the next COPP? Tell us in the comments.

Interested parties should submit letters of interest and application materials by 5 p.m. April 23, 2013. Candidates should also submit a resume and answer the following questions:

1. Are you familiar with restrictions Montana law imposes upon the activities of an individual holding the office of COPP? How did you acquire your familiarity?

2. What is your legal writing experience? Have you had any mediation or arbitration experience?

3. Have you ever been party to a complaint filed with the COPP?

4. What is your current or past involvement with either the campaign of a candidate or a ballot initiative?

5. Have you been affiliated with a political party or political action committee? If yes, how will this affiliation affect your ability to render impartial decisions on complaints filed against candidates, PACs, and ballot initiatives?

6. Have you or a family member been involved in the legislative process as a lobbyist?

Interested applicants should send their applications to

Candidate Selection Committee

c/o Legislative Services Division

PO Box 201706

Helena MT 59620-1706

Link to Commissioner of Political Practices website:

Link to Statutes Pertaining to Commissioner of Political Practices:

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tempers flare over “dark money” disclaimer bill

WittichRepublicans in the GOP Senate caucus clashed again on the Senate floor Friday over a bill aimed at requiring disclaimers on political speech paid for with anonymous or “dark money” funds.

House Bill 254, by Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, would require the following disclaimer on political mailers and websites that are paid for with anonymous contributions:

"This communication is funded by anonymous sources.  The voter should determine the veracity of  its content."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, a staunch opponent of the bill, called it “terrible bill” and dubbed members of the Republican caucus who were likely to vote with Democrats to pass the measure “the crossover coalition.”

Wittich has opposed measures supported by some of his fellow Republicans aimed at cracking down at dark money anonymous political spending in Montana election.

Realizing that the bill was likely to pass, Wittich said:

“I didn’t make an amendment because I know where this vote is going. The crossover coalition and the Democrats are going to pass this bill, and everybody is going to be happy, and the headlines will be ‘we took a shot at dark money didn’t we do great,’” Wittich said.

Wittich said the content and “truthfulness”  of political messages is what is important.

“We’ve lost sight of all of that in all these campaign finance reform bills,” Wittich said. “We hear all about dark money, the spin of dark money. Well, it is about owning your vote. It’s about the exposure of your voting record and its the one thing people back home can find out about you.”

Wittich said voters can’t find out about “back room deals,” “vote trading,” “all the lobbyist transactions” and “spending other people’s money.”

Those last points touched a nerve with some of Wittich’s fellow Republicans, who took the unusual step of challenging their majority leader on the floor of the Senate.

Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, is the sponsor of the two proposed legislative referendums on voting that last week sent the Senate into a tail spin as Democrats erupted on the floor in an attempt block their passage.

A week later Olson was at the center of another floor fight, but this time the jabs were traded within the GOP caucus.

Here’s the transcript of what happened after Wittich’s floor speech in opposition to HB254.

Sen. Alan Olson: Mr. Chairman, Sen. Wittich, could you identify the crossover coalition for me?

Chairman Ed Walker: To the bill please.

Sen. Art Wittich: Mr. Chairman, would you like a list, Sen. Olson?

Chairman: Sen. Olson.

Olson: Mr. Chairman, it was in the good senator’s discussion on the bill. I guess I’d like to know who the crossover coalition is, Mr. Chairman. Being as it was brought up by the good Senator from Bozeman.

Walker: I just feel that’s out of order at this point. Um, Sen. Wittich.

Wittich: Mr. Chairman, I don’t know the specific names right now, but we see it on the board, often.

Walker: Sen. Olson.

Olson: Mr. Chairman. Follow up?

Walker: Will Sen. Wittich yield?

Wittich: Yes.

Olson: Mr. Chairman, Sen. Wittich, you mention members of this body trading votes. Could you identify those individuals?

Wittich: Mr. Chairman, Sen. Olson, I’m not sure that would be a very comfortable thing for you if I started disclosing that. We all know that it happens.

Walker: Senators can we just keep the decorum in the body, please? Sen. Cliff Larsen, would like to close on your motion?

Larsen: Mr. Chairman, I think the floor is still open. I believe other people want to speak. I’d feel comfortable if they were recognized…

Walker: Sen. Peterson, for what purpose do you rise?

Sen. Jim Peterson: “Mr. Chairman I was going to rise on a point of personal privilege, but I’ll do that later.”

Walker: “Sen. Jones, for what purpose do you rise?

Sen. Llew Jones: “Mr. Chairman I do have a question for Sen. Wittich.

Walker: Will Sen. Wittich yield?

Wittich: Sure.

Jones: Mr Chairman, Sen. Wittich, you suggested that a crossover coalition was voting in some block. Are you suggesting that we should vote…should put something other than our conscience or our caucus ahead of our vote?

Walker: Sen. Wittich?

Wittich: Mr. Chairman, Sen. Jones, I’m not sure I understand the question.

Jones: You seem to be suggesting, somehow, that our vote was specifically owed to a group of people for some reason. That we couldn’t vote our conscience or we couldn’t represent our constituents, that somehow…

Walker: Can we keep it on the bill please..the bill… we’re talking about votes throughout this session. May we please keep it on the bill, which is HB254.

Jones: I withdraw my question.

Walker: Sen. Essmann.

President Jeff Essmann: Mr. Chairman, members of the body I think we should confine our discussion on the floor to the bill that’s before us and when we stray I would remind any member of this body they have the right to stand up and call the chair to bring any member that strays off the topic of the bill to order. That should be the procedure that we follow here if we stray.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Someone started a campaign website for Sen. Llew Jones…it wasn’t Llew Jones screenshot

If you visit on the Internet you won’t find a whole lot there yet.

The landing page features a pastoral scene of a freshly cut hayfield, complete with round bales, grain bins in the background and clouds billowing over distant mountain tops.

“Thank you for visiting Lew Jones for Montana” the  banner on the page proclaims.

“Please check in soon for more updates.”

What updates might one expect to find on what is presumably a campaign website for Conrad Republican Sen. llew Jones?

Jones doesn’t know, but he’s pretty sure it won’t be good. 

“I can only postulate, but it would seem that with the timing, mid-session, and the anonymous nature, that is is most likely of ill-intent,” Jones said. “If I were to hazard a guess, I believe it is the beginning of dark money's intent to message against me. After all, the owner, at this point is hidden.”

According to a domain registration search, was registered on March 28 using at The owner of the domain has opted to keep their identity secret.

March 28 is the a day after the Senate passed Senate Bill 375, the bi-partisan anti-dark money campaign finance reform bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, and back by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

A handful of Republicans joined nearly all Senate Democrats in voting to bring SB375 out of committee, where it had stalled, and onto the floor for a debate. During the floor debate Jones was one of the most outspoken critics of dark money spending in political campaigns.

Jones described dark money this way on the Senate floor:

“The most despicable person in westerns is the bushwhacker, the person who sits in the bushes and shoots someone in the back. And that is dark money,” said state Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. “Dark money is the most destructive thing happening to politics today.”

Jones, who was alerted to the existence of the website by an anonymous emails, said he suspects the website is a message designed to “intimidate” him into “stand down” on his crusade against dark money.

“I am not a popular guy with those that prefer to operate from the dark,” Jones said. “It seems that those who operate independently, and who make their votes based upon their conscience and then their constituents are not obedient enough.  Darkness seems particularly opposed to any bipartisan activity.”

Jones said if the website was aimed at intimidating him, it will actually have the opposite effect.

“I plan to work even harder to shine light on dark money,” Jones said.

Jones said he plans to blast House Bill 254, by Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, onto the Senate floor. That blast motion could come today.

Cook’s bill would require election materials, including anonymous websites and mailings, to contain the following  disclaimer if the material was paid for by anonymous political action committee dollars:

“This communication is funded by anonymous sources. The voter should determine the veracity of its content.”

Cook’s bill was tabled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Jones said bills like SB375 and HB254 “help turn the lights” on anonymous campaign activity.

“The voter needs to be informed when the sources of materials are dark,” Jones said. “I strongly support the right of free speech, but those that wish to speak freely should step into the light and identify themselves when doing so.”

A search of the IP address used to register found the same IP address was used to register at least 50 other domain names, including


According to Federal Election Commission records, Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, is the treasurer for the Montana Growth Foundation. Priest runs a political issue advocacy group called Montana Growth Network, which this session has sent out mailers critical of Medicaid expansion.

Priest was a vocal opponent of SB375 and voted against it in the Senate.

Priest said he does not own the domain for and has done no work on the website.

Priest said he had no knowledge of Priest said he first learned of when questioned by the Lowdown.

“The first thing I did was see how I registered the (Montana Growth) Foundation,” Priest said. “When I looked at my accounts I saw that I didn’t register the domain for the foundation.”

Priest said that doesn’t mean someone associated with the Montana Growth Network or the Montana Growth Foundation didn’t register the domain and start the website.

Priest said he was looking into the matter.

Judge says false claims lawsuit against former COPP Dave Gallik can proceed

Gallik 2

In an order filed today, Missoula District Judge John Larson said a lawsuit against former Commissioner of Political Practices Dave Gallik can proceed.

Gallik resigned as commissioner in January 2012, shortly after the Great Falls Tribune reported allegations made by Gallik's former staff members who claimed Gallik, an attorney, was conducting private law practice work out of his state office.

The  Bozeman-based conservative watchdog group the Montana Policy Institute brought the lawsuit in March 2012 after the articles first ran in the Tribune.

The lawsuit was filed under the “False Claims Act,” a law Gallik carried when he was in the state House of Representatives in 2005.

The False Claims Act law authorizes a private person to prosecute a recovery and civil sanction action on behalf of the state government against any person who obtains payment from a government entity by means of a knowingly false or fraudulent representation or claim. The Montana Attorney General can then decide whether to join in on the lawsuit, stay out of the lawsuit, or move to dismiss the lawsuit altogether.

Great Falls attorney Ward "Mick" Taleff, the attorney representing the state in the case, last November argued in court that the case should be dismissed because the Montana Policy Institute lacked standing to bring the lawsuit.

The state asserted that Gallik’s alleged conduct was performed within the scope of his duties to the state. The state also argued the allegations in the complain mirrored those publically disclosed in the Tribune articles, and thus MPI cannot identify direct and independent knowledge of the allegations.

MPI argued in court that the group filed a freedom of information request several moths prior to the Tribune’s FOI request and subsequent news reports.

Larson ruled  in favor of MPI, saying state law does not  preclude MPI from bringing the case. The judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case.

The state now has 10 days to elect to intervene in the proceedings against Gallik or it must notify the court that it declines to take over the action. If the state elects to intervene, the state has to serve the complain on all defendants within 20 days of the intervening action. If the state declines to intervene, then then MPI can serve the defendants and move on with the lawsuit.

I’ll update this post throughout the day as I learn more.

UPDATE: Here’s the judge’s full order.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Essmann’s Letter to the Senate re: Friday’s Meltdown

Here’s the letter Senate President Jeff Essmann read to the full Senate Wednesday: (Click on the image to expand it).

Essman Letter

Senate GOP lets Dems off the hook, House aid quashes rumors of early Sine Die

Minority Democrats and GOP leadership in the Senate have come to an agreement that apparently cancels seven subpoenas Senate President Jeff Essmann issued Saturday in the wake of Friday’s floor fracas.

Essmann, R-Billings, initiated an investigation into the matter to determine whether Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, and Senate Democrats intentionally deceived the body when they attempted a call of the Senate motion on the floor.

Essmann ordered Augare, Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, Sen. John Sesso, D-Butte, and four other Senate Democrats to appear before him at noon today.

In an email to reporters this morning, Essmann’s spokesman, Brock Lowrance, said the subpoenas and the noon meeting have been canceled.

“The investigation into Friday’s events and the subpoenas that were issued will not be pursued,” Lowrance said. “Members of Republican and Democratic leadership have reached an agreement to resolve the matter.”

Essmann today on the Senate floor will read a letter signed by him and Sesso.

Essmann and  Sesso met Tuesday afternoon to discuss the situation surrounding Friday’s events. According to Lowrance, the meeting was “productive and candid” and the two leaders were able to reach a resolution that was reasonable to all parties involved.

According to the email, among the discussions was an agreement between Republican and Democratic leadership to work together on Sen. Debby Barrett’s SB 387, a bill that would reform operations and procedures within the Office of Political Practices.

The parties agreed to work on a bipartisan amendments during its consideration in the House.

Update: I just got this statement from Sen. Shannon Augare:

“I am pleased the Senate has reached this important agreement. We have a lot of work to do and we cannot let this distraction get in the way of finishing our one constitutional job, balancing the budget. My ethics and professional values remain intact and I will continue to provide a quality service to those who I represent in the Montana Senate.”

Former Rep. Wayne Stahl quashes rumors of early Sine Die in the House

Late Tuesday I started hearing rumors that former Rep. Wayne Stahl, R-Saco, was advocating to House leadership a plan to adjourn next week if the Senate doesn’t look like it could get its act together and pass a budget bill.

Stahl, who is serving as a policy advisor to House Speaker Mark Blasdel, dismissed that rumor this morning.

Stahl said some of the newer lawmakers recently have been asking him about various scenarios that could play out as the 63rd Legislature heads into the final stretch.

“I think I told someone that if the Senate didn’t get HB2 finished we’re going to have to go to a special session,” Stahl said.

Stahl this is the time of the legislative season where people begin speculating on outcomes, endgames and sine die scenarios, but he said he is not advocating for forcing a special session either by early sine die or any other method.

“The governor always seems to have more power in a special session,” Stahl said.

Stahl said he expects Senate leaders to move past last Friday’s outburst on the floor and get to work finishing up work on the budget.

“Sooner or later they’re going to pass it. When they get done with HB2 we’ll know a lot more,” Stahl said.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Top executives for company seeking to buy Blue Cross Blue Shield MT made $59 million in 2012

The top 10 highest paid executives of the Illinois-based company seeking to buy Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana made a combined $59 million in salaries and bonuses in 2012, according to Illinois state records.

HCSC's Chicago HeadquartersIllinois-based Health Care Service Corporation is in the process of trying to acquire BCBSMT, Montana’s largest health insurance provider, and is seeking approval from State Auditor Monica Lindeen and Attorney General Tim Fox.

Lindeen’s office last month requested that executive compensation information for HCSC’s top executives be part of the record as state regulators consider whether the merger is in the best interest of Montanans.

“We think Montanans have a right to know what the executives of a potential acquirer of nonprofit Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana make,” said Lindeen’s chief legal counsel, Jesse Laslovich. “We already know what chief executives at Blue Cross Blue Shield make and we think that information ought to be consistent.”

Chicago-based HCSC, the nation’s fourth-largest insurer, is a coalition of Blue Cross plans in Illinois, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma and has 13 million customers. Blue Cross in Montana has 270,000 customers.

Former Supreme Court Justice William Leaphart presided over hearings in the case in February and March. Late last month Laslovich asked Leaphart to include the executive pay information in the official record for regulators to consider. HCSC on Thursday filed a brief resisting that request, arguing the information has no bearing on the proposed merger.

HCSC’s attorneys argued to Leaphart that HCSC employees, including its executives, have a reasonable expectation of privacy under the Montana Constitution that should protect their compensation information, even though the information is public under Illinois law.

“During the public hearing this information was sealed to preserve the privacy expected under the Montana law,” said HCSC spokesman Greg Thompson. “We provided it solely in the interest of cooperating in our ongoing discussions with regulators, and therefore the individual employee compensation should not be publicly disclosed.”

Thompson said HCSC is the nation’s largest customer-owned health insurer, with total gross revenues of approximately $52 billion for all lines of business.

“For every dollar we receive in revenue, a small fraction of a penny goes to executive compensation,” Thompson said.

Laslovich, who had seen the executive pay information prior to it being sealed in the Montana case, said the information is significant because HCSC’s top executive made nearly as much in 2012 as the amount the company was initially willing to pay for the entire book of business for BCBSMT.

“That factors into the ultimate recommendation we’ll be making to Justice Leaphart,” Laslovich said. “It goes to the commitment we have to the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana plan and ultimately the Montanans who are insured by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana.”

HCSC originally agreed to pay $17.6 million when it announced last year that it would buy BCBSMT. The company later agreed to build a 100-employee call center in Great Falls and pay an additional $23 million to acquire BCBSMT if state regulators signed off on the deal by the end of last month.

On March 31 the company announced that it was scrapping plans for the call center because Montana regulators hadn’t given the company reasonable assurances that the deal would approved.

The Great Falls Tribune obtained a document from the Illinois Department of Insurance that shows HCSC’s top executive, CEO Patricia Hemingway Hall, took home $16 million in 2012. According to the filing, $14.9 million of that came in the form of bonuses.

Hall’s pay jumped nearly 20 percent from 2011, when she made $12.9 million in total compensation, including $11.8 million in bonuses.

In 2011 Hall earned $8 million in pay, and $7 million of that came from bonuses.

According to records filed in Montana, BCBSMT’s top executive, CEO Michael Frank, took home $635,298 in 2012, of which $213,059 came in the form of bonuses.

Frank earned $514,226 in 2011, of which $102,924 was bonus payments. In 2010 Frank took home $416,100, including $46,441 in bonuses.

Laslovich said Lindeen’s office will submit its recommended findings to Leaphart on April 19.

View HCSC's 2012 Supplemental Compensation Exhibit

View BCBSMT's 2012 Supplemental Compensation Exhibit

Monday, April 8, 2013

Leaked emails from Blackfeet tribal officials back up Augare’s explanation for absence

AugareA 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.

Pet owners beware: traps set on Helena public lands in popular recreation areas

By now you’ve probably seen the headline in Sunday’s Helena Independent Record:

“Traps Snare Anger”

The news has been circulating on Facebook and Twitter since the Helena Vigilante first reported signs showing up at the Dump Gulch trailhead warning hikers and pet owners that  a trapper was trapping in the area of the popular city park trail system.

I saw the Vigilante story late last week, but when I awoke to the IR headline on Sunday morning it reinforced my trepidation about taking my curious, fun-loving lab into the hills around Helena.

I’ve seen what snares, leg-hold traps, and conibear traps can do to pets. I’ve written about this issue in the past and I've attended educational workshops so I have pretty decent understanding of how to release most traps. Still, I didn’t want to put my 90-pound lab mix at risk of getting injured or killed, so we decided to go hiking in the Scratchgravel Hills instead the Helena city parks. Besides, I wanted to see if there was anything left of the disc golf course following last summer’s wildfire.

About 15 minutes into our hike, not far from a disc golf tone (like the cup in ball golf), Neko caught a scent of something interesting and ran uphill ahead of me. When I crested the hill I saw what caught her attention:


Lucky for Neko this fox was snared long ago. Had this snare still been set, it might have been Neko caught in that trap. No question whatever bait was used to attract the fox would have attracted my curious lab, and I might have found myself struggling to free a 90-pound trashing dog from a choking snare before it was too late.

Unlike at the Dump Gulch trailhead, I saw no signs at the trailhead warning pet owners of traps in the area. Whoever set the trap set it less than 150 feet from a trail and very near the disc golf course area.

It appears to me the trapper who set that trap also broke at least two Montana laws governing furbearer trapping:

Checking and Placing Traps – Traps should be checked at least once every 48 hours. It is the trapper’s responsibility to check his/her traps regularly. Failure to pick up traps or snares at the end of the trapping season or attending them in a manner that waste furbearing animals constitutes a misdemeanor per Montana law.

Trap Identification – Metal identification tags must be fastened to all traps and snares as per Montana law. Metal tags must bear the name and address of the trapper or a personal identification number, which is the trappers date of birth and ALS number. Tags should be attached to the end of the snare, chain or other anchoring material at the end farthest from the portion of the device which holds the animal.

This fox had been dead a long time by the time Neko found it. Certainly a lot longer than 48 hours. Its eyes were dried up in its sockets and it was well along in the process of decomposing. Also, there were no tags or markers anywhere identifying the trapper or his/her ALS number.

My advice to pet owners who enjoy hiking in and around popular public recreation areas is to watch the video below and learn how to release all traps. Leg-hold traps can seriously injure, but snares or conibears could kill your beloved dog in no time unless you know how to react.

Trappers will argue that you should “leash your pet,” but the fact is many dog owners take their pets to public lands to let them stretch their legs and run. Most of us think nothing about the dangers of traps, especially in popular recreation areas so close to city limits. But in Helena it appears traps now something we have to beware of. So if you want to take your pet on a hike, you better keep it on a leash, carry a wire cutters and know how to free it if it should become ensnared in a trapper’s trap. Here’s a good instructional video:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Governor, parties, lawmakers react to remarkable chain of events in the MT Senate

Gov. Steve Bullock addresses the media, April 5, 2013

Here are the complete press releases and statements issued by lawmakers and political parties in the wake of Friday’s actions on the Senate as Democrats attempted to prevent the passage of two referendum proposals aimed at altering Montana elections. I’ve made edits, changes or alterations to emphases.

4:53 P.M., Senate Democrats issue statement

Democrats stand up for transparency in Montanans’ democracy

Helena, MONT. – The Republican leaders of the legislature today abused the legislative process to push through irresponsible attacks on Montanans’ constitutional right to vote. 

Led by Sen. Jeff Essmann, the Republican leaders made good their promise uncovered in secret emails released earlier this year: pass the buck through the referendum process so they don’t have to be held accountable on allegedly controversial issues, like same day voter registration. 

“Enough is enough,” said Senate Democratic leader Jon Sesso.  “Montanans deserve a democracy that works, but abusing the rules and shutting Montanans out of the ballot box is against everything our constituents value.” 

Republican leadership forced the legislative process on yet another referendum despite points of order called by Democrats, ignoring vociferous protests from the floor as well as Montanans in the gallery.

“Someone had to stand up for Montanans' right to vote,” said Sesso, “Republican legislators want to make it harder to vote, and they showed today they’re willing to use every legislative tactic to do that.”

SB 405 would put on the ballot an initiative to eliminate same-day voter registration. Republicans felt they would stand up for Montanans' right to participate in our democracy, and that includes allowing Montanans to register and vote on election day.

“We will hold them accountable. That's what Montanans want us to do, especially when they are trying to take away our cherished right to vote,” said Sesso.


Montana GOP response:

Democrat mob rule tactics fail to intimidate

Today at the Montana Legislature, chaos erupted when Democrats tried to bring the process of self-government to a grinding halt.

In danger of losing a crucial vote, Democrats in the Montana State Senate arranged for one of their Senators to disappear, so they could use a parliamentary tactic called "Call of the Senate." That tactic would have stopped all business of the Legislature until the "missing" Senator could be found.

If business had stopped, a number of good Republican bills would have failed to meet a crucial deadline, and would have died.

When the "missing Senator" was exposed as a ruse, and Republican Senate President Jeff Essmann went to proceed with business, Democrats shouted and pounded on their desks, trying to drown out any opposition to their views. They packed the Senate gallery with lobbyists and partisan operatives to shout and try to silence the majority of Senators who were doing the job they were sent their to do. Republican Senators refused to allow the mob rule tactics to intimidate them, and continued doing the people's business.

The Montana Republican Party released a statement on Democrat efforts to bring the legislature to a halt.

Bowen Greenwood, Executive Director of the Montana Republican Party, said, “Today Democrats in the Montana State Senate reached a new low. Trying to stop a crucial vote from happening, they shouted and pounded their desks and packed the gallery with partisan allies trying to drown out their opposition. Thank God mob rule did not prevail. Senate President Jeff Essmann did the right thing by refusing to be intimidated by anti-democratic, mob rule tactics.”

Senate GOP responds:

Statement by Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich Regarding Democrat Gamesmanship the Montana Senate

(Helena, MT) -- In response to today’s obstructionist actions by Democratic members of the Montana Senate, Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich  has released the following statement:
“The actions by the Democrat members of the Senate were unprecedented. They intentionally mislead Montanans and the Senate about a member’s absence to stage a piece of political theatre.
Today’s political gamesmanship was designed to try and deny Montanans the right to vote on two issues that would improve the integrity of our elections. Republicans worked diligently to conduct the people’s business.
Montanans expect their elected officials to work with one another. I expect all members of the Senate come together and honor our commitment to work for Montanans,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich.

Gov. Steve Bullock addresses the media at 5:20 p.m.:

Readout of Governor Bullock’s Statement

Montana State Capitol – April 5, 2013

Today was a disappointing day for the State of Montana.

Since I was sworn in as your Governor, I’ve sought to change the tone in this building.  In my State of the State address, I asked the legislature to “act in a manner that we’re not ashamed to have our kids watching, because they are.” I won’t let my kids watch the news tonight.

I’m saddened by what we saw today – it’s worse than Washington, DC.  I’m not embarrassed by men and women demanding a right to speak – I’m disappointed by those who denied it.

Today, we saw elected Senators, people who have been entrusted by their neighbors to represent them, prevented from speaking – because they were trying to speak for those who are too often silenced. 

The Senate sought to eliminate the right to vote for senior citizens who may have moved into an assisted living facility.  Active duty military members who were overseas during voter registration.  Students, who simply moved down the hall of their dormitory.

Every week I meet with the House and Senate pages.  I tell them that there is no more important right, than the one to vote.  Because every vote matters.  I encourage them to stand up and be counted.  To stand up and make their voices heard.

The hyper-partisan nature of the Senate leadership is interfering with our good government.

When our ancestors passed the Corrupt Practices Act – a measure that sought to ensure some degree of confidence in our elected leaders – they weren’t acting as Democrats or Republicans.  They were acting as Montanans.

We live in a democracy – the greatest on earth.  A Democracy where a majority rules, but a minority has a voice and a right to be heard. 

The minority has rights – not only rights that were adopted by this legislature, but the right to be respected.  Respect is a Montana value - one that should be inherent in all of us who call this place our home.

I strongly encourage Sen. Essmann to reconsider every vote made today.  And I encourage the leaders in this body – not just those elected to leadership positions – to stand up and start acting in a way that would make our ancestors and our kids proud.

We have a lot of work to do tonight.  I’m sure I’ll see everyone tomorrow.


Montana Democratic Party spokesman Chris Saeger issues statement at 5:44 p.m.:

"The same extremist Republican leaders of the legislature who broke the rules to silence the minority today are the same ones who were exposed for plotting against moderates in secret emails." 

"Sen. Essmann won't stop silencing dissent until he gets all the way to the ballot box.  Republican party bosses in the legislature have made it clear that their own political gain is more important than Montanans' right to have their say in our democracy."

"We're proud that Montana Democrats stood up to make sure the everyone in our democracy plays by the same rules, and has the same right to access the ballot box."

That’s all for now. Be sure to check out the Great Falls Tribune for all the latest on this fascinating turn of events at the Montana Legislature.

UPDATED: Senate Dems take extraordinary action to stall proposed election referendums

Democrats in the Montana Senate attempted to pull off a parliamentary procedure that could dramatically effect the remaining three weeks of the 2013 Legislative session.

Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, left the Capitol Friday in order to set up a “Call of the Senate,” a parliamentary procedure that allows a minority body to call on a missing member before business can resume.  Sources say Augare may have headed Browning. Augare’s disappearance was designed force a stop all business in the Senate on a critical deadline day for certain bills.

At issue are a pair of referenda the Senate passed on second reading yesterday that Democrats  say could dramatically impact access to the ballot. Both measures, which are sponsored by Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, must pass the Senate on third reading by the Saturday noon transmittal deadline or they are dead.

Democrats deemed Senate Bill 405 and Senate Bill 408 so damaging to voting access – and Democrats’ chances at the polls – that were willing to risk the fate of key legislation – including Medicaid expansion, a state pension fix, education funding, etc. – to stop the measures from moving forward to the House.

The first measure, SB405, would ask voters to eliminate same-day voter registration. The second bill, SB408 would put a referendum on the ballot that would create a “top two primary” system in which only the top two vote-getters would qualify for the November general election ballot.

The showdown lead to a raucous and unprecedented scene on the Senate floor where, after nearly three hours of stalled action, Republicans resumed Senate business and moved forward with the third reading of bills as Democrats pounded on their desks in defiance. Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, repeatedly read from the rule book demanding that  the Democrats be recognized as Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, tried to conduct the third reading business over the loud objections of Democratic supporters in the gallery.

After completion of third reading Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, motioned officially made a motion for a Call of the Senate. When Essmann asked if he had five legislators willing to second his motion, nearly all of the Democrats raised their hands to the cheers of people packed into the Senate gallery.

If all 50 members of the Senate aren’t present, then either party can motion for a Call of the Senate, which means business cannot resume until all 50 members are present. It would take a 2/3 majority of the Senate to override the Call of the Senate. Republicans don’t have 2/3 majority in the Senate.

In a press release issued after the Senate broke, Democrats accused Republican leaders of abusing the legislative referendum process.

“Enough is enough,” Democratic minority leader Jon Sesso said. “Montanans deserve a democracy that works, but abusing the rules and shutting Montanans out of the ballot box is against everything our constituents value.”

Perennial Libertarian Candidate Mike Fellows was at the Capitol Friday. Fellows said he supported the Democrats’ tactic:

“I think it’s a good strategy,” Fellows said. “When you look at states like Washington, when they passed a (Top 2 primary) in 2008, there hasn't been a third-party candidate on the ballot since. It’s designed to destroy competition.”

Some Republicans scorned the Democrats’ tactic while others said it was a legitimate parliamentary gambit that failed.

Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, said Democrats in the Montana State Senate reached a new low.

“Trying to stop a crucial vote from happening, they shouted and pounded their desks and packed the gallery with partisan allies trying to drown out their opposition,” Greenwood said. “Thank God mob rule did not prevail. Senate President Jeff Essmann did the right thing by refusing to be intimidated by anti-democratic, mob rule tactics.”

Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said he didn’t blame Democrats for trying to use a procedural tactic to try to stop legislation they deemed unacceptable.

"I would hope it does not impact the rest of the session. It was a process gambit that didn't necessarily work,” Jones said. “A process gambit was designed and we responded to it, and now we roll on.”

I’ll post more details as I learn them.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Judge who sent racist email about the president to fully retire May 3

Former Montana Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull will fully retire on May 3, according to a statement published on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ website on Tuesday.

Cebull, who stepped down from full active service on March 18 to take senior status, was under investigation by a special committee of the 9th Circuit after he sent a racist email from his court chambers about President Barack Obama. The email contained a “joke” that implied that Obama’s mother had sex with a dog.

After the Great Falls Tribune uncovered the email Cebull admitted to sending it and later publicly apologized. Cebull subsequently asked 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski to initiate an investigation into whether his transmittal of the email constituted misconduct under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act.

Kim Abbott, of the Montana Human Rights Network, welcomed the news that Cebull would be fully stepping down next month. The network last year filed an official judicial misconduct complaint against Cebull and circulated a petition calling on the judge to resign.

“We filed the complaint because we believed the email Cebull sent called into question his ability to perform his duties impartially and he did violate judicial conduct rules,” Abbott said Wednesday. “We're happy that Montanans will be able to appear before a different judge, because Montanans deserve fairness. Women and people of color would have valid concerns  appearing before judge Cebull.”

According to the statement published on the 9th Circuit’s website, the special committee conducted “a thorough and extensive investigation, interviewed numerous witnesses, considered voluminous documentation, including emails, and conducted an interview with Judge Cebull.”

The special committee submitted its report to the 9th Circuit Judicial Council in December 2012 and on March 15, 2013 the council issued an order and memorandum. According to the 9th Circuit the findings of the investigation and the court’s order reamin confidential during the appeal period, and the council will have no further statement until Cebull's retirement is effective.

Cebull’s retirement comes as the U.S. Senate is considering nominations to fill the Montana federal bench seats vacated by Cebull and District Judge Sam Haddon,  of Great Falls, who went on senior status on Dec. 31, 2012. Chief District Judge Dana Christensen, of Missoula, is the only active federal judge in Montana.

Last month Montana Sen. Max Baucus sent a letter to President Barack Obama nominating state Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris and Yellowstone County District Court Judge Susan Watters to fill the two vacancies.

University of Richmond Law Professor Carl Tobias, a former University of Montana Law Professor and an expert on the federal courts, said the Senate needs to move quickly on to avoid a federal caseload bottleneck in Montana.

“This just steps up the urgency of moving the candidates forward and having them nominated and seating them on the bench,” Tobias said. “You're now nailed down to one active judge, who's also a chief judge, and he's in Missoula trying to run the court as well as his own caseload.”

Tobias called the situation in Montana urgent and said its critical that Baucus push for a speedy confirmation process in the U.S. Senate. Tobias said Obama’s federal judicial nominations are taking an average of seven months to be confirmed. Tobais said Baucus should approach ranking Senate judiciary committee Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, and push for an expedited confirmation process.

“I can't see them getting confirmed before the summer, and that's optimistic,” Tobias said.