A government watchdog group has asked Montana’s senate president to intervene in a records request aimed at determining whether Republican Sen. Jennifer Fielder misused state resources to promote the platform of the American Lands Council, an organization leading the charge for western states to take over federal lands.
Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, was named CEO of the American Lands Council (ALC) in February and is seeking re-election this month to her post in Senate District 7, which she has held since 2013.
She denies using her state legislative email account or other public resources to conduct ALC business or advocate on its behalf, and says she hasn’t had time to fulfill the records request, which she called politically motivated.
Prior to accepting the position at the helm of the Utah-based ALC, which lobbies for the transfer of federal lands to the states, Fielder emerged as a leading proponent of the land transfer movement, a controversial subject in western states and a sharp point of contention this election cycle.
The same month Fielder took the reins at ALC, the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability (CfA) filed a public records request with Montana’s Legislative Services Division, asking for copies of all correspondence from Fielder’s legislative office related to, among other topics, federal lands and the American Lands Council.
The reason for the request, CfA states, is “to inform and educate the public about how Sen. Fielder has performed her functions as a state legislator and the extent to which she has used the resources and powers of her office to pursue interests that extend beyond her official duties.”
As of Oct. 31, the group’s request had not been fully processed, and in an Aug. 26 letter to Montana Senate President Debby Barrett asking for her intervention, CfA Executive Director Anne Weismann said the nearly nine-month delay appears to suggest Fielder is stalling until after the Nov. 8 election.
“Sen. Fielder seems intent on delaying disclosure until or close to her upcoming election on November 8, suggesting she seeks to deprive the voters of Montana of information that may prove useful in casting their ballots for state senator,” according to the organization’s letter to Barrett. “If true, all of this would be a gross violation of the meaning and intent of Montana’s public records law.”
Barrett did not respond to CfA’s appeal that she direct the Legislative Services Division to immediately produce all of the requested records, according to the group.
The CfA bills itself as a private, nonprofit and nonpartisan watchdog group. The organization includes advisory board member Louis Mayberg, who co-founded Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C., or CREW, as well as Weismann, who served as chief legal counsel for CREW for a decade, and communications manager Dan Stevens, CREW’s former senior researcher.
Montana legislative rules prohibit the use of the state communication system to pursue interests that extend beyond official legislative duties.
To fulfill the CfA’s request, Legislative Services Division Executive Director Susan Fox said her independent, impartial agency sent Fielder an Adobe PDF file of as many as 800 emails culled from her state legislative account in late July, as well as a 19-page spreadsheet cataloging the correspondence, but the agency has yet to disclose any of them to CfA.
“Now that I have this document I will get through it as soon as I am able, although it is nearly 400 pages and I will have to work on it when I can find free time,” Fielder wrote in an email to Fox. “With work, senate duties, church, civic commitments, campaigning, and family I have a quite full schedule. As I understand it there is no specific time frame in which it must be completed but I will try to get it done before the election.”
Fox said it’s unclear whether a statutory timeframe exists requiring the Legislative Services Division to release the emails to CfA, but added that Fielder does have privacy rights.
“I don’t have guidelines on when I need to release them,” Fox said. “We have rarely had any requests that are this extensive, and I thought that we took a long time to fulfill our part, but I can’t really comment on Senator Fielder. And I can’t revoke her right to privacy.”
In an interview with the Beacon, Fielder said she hasn’t had time to comply with the group’s sprawling request, or to determine which of the emails constitute public record and which fall under the purview of her privacy rights.
Fielder characterized the group’s tactics as being straight out of the left-wing playbook, and accused them of conducting a “witch hunt.”
“This Washington, D.C. hit-squad cast a wide net because they are looking for anything that might damage my credibility,” Fielder said. “Of course they aren’t going to find anything problematic. That legislative email account has never been used to promote the American Lands Council. But I don’t have time to respond to Obama’s dirty-ops crews. I am not going to use up my personal time to jump through their hoops and respond to them.”
Since it was founded in 2012, ALC has weathered ethics complaints in several states, including Montana.
In March 2015, an aide to Fielder resigned for ethics violations after registering as a lobbyist for ALC, which legislative leaders said violated rules that prohibit legislative staff from lobbying.
Earlier this year, CfA filed a complaint with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes citing an alleged string of emails from Utah Rep. Ken Ivory’s public legislative account used to conduct business on behalf of ALC, which Ivory co-founded and led as president prior to Fielder.
CfA asserted Ivory lied to investigators about not using his state email account to further the business of ALC.
Dan Burton, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General, said the complaint and its allegations were reviewed, but the office declined to prosecute Ivory and has since closed the case.