HELENA — Montana lawmakers are poised to foot the bill to defend a state senator who is being sued under the state’s public records act to release her emails.
Earlier this month, a legislative committee inserted an amendment to a supplemental appropriations bill to allocate $100,000 to help pay for legal fees that might be incurred by Sen. Jennifer Fielder, a Republican from Thompson Falls.
In February, the Campaign for Accountability sued Fielder, the Legislative Services Division and the state of Montana for failing to fully release hundreds of pages of documents requested a year ago.
The state’s public records act requires public officials to release documents, including emails, pertaining to their official duties.
The group is seeking correspondences, including emails, sent by Fielder since Jan. 1, 2013, regarding federal lands, energy and natural resources, and communication with a Utah state legislator, the American Lands Council and several conservative groups.
The bill carrying the amendment to pay for Fielder’s defense has stirred little controversy thus far. During an initial hearing before the Senate Finance and Claims Committee on March 8, Democratic Sen. Mary Caferro of Helena was the only member to vote against the amendment.
Caferro said Fielder and the state could avoid further legal expense by immediately releasing the documents.
“I’m against paying for her lawsuit,” Caferro said. “When you sign on to mt.gov, your email is public record. If somebody wants it, you give it them.”
Fielder voted in favor of the measure when it was approved 46-3 by the Senate on March 11, but said in an interview that she was unaware that the measure contained an amendment setting aside money for her case. Moreover, she doubted money was specifically set aside on her behalf.
“I don’t think that was done,” she said. If it were, she said it was inappropriate.
“I do think it’s really inappropriate to tie up taxpayer money with these types of things,” Fielder said. “What’s more inappropriate is that the group that brought this is a politically motivated organization that’s trying to harass and degrade conservative people.”
While the House had already approved HB3, the chamber again overwhelmingly ratified the measure on Wednesday with amendments.
Democratic Rep. Jenny Eck, the House chamber’s minority leader, took note of the appropriation during a floor session and urged that public records request be complied with as soon as possible to minimize any costs to the state.
“It’s a reminder to all of us, especially during Sunshine Week, that we should respond to FOIA requests as fast as possible,” Eck said afterward, referring to the Freedom of Information Act. While the act applies specifically to federal agencies, states have their own version for local government officials and agencies.
Sunshine Week is a yearly observation of the public’s right to open and transparent government.
The Campaign for Accountability took interest in Fielder’s emails after she became chief executive officer of the American Land Council in 2016.
She assumed the role of CEO after her predecessor, Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, resigned from the lands council amid scrutiny for using his government email and public time to conduct business on the group’s behalf.
Fielder said she has already directed staff to release the requested documents.
“Since the lawsuit was filed, the attorneys that defend state agencies are now weighing in and deciding what they should or shouldn’t do. So it’s not up to me at this point.”
Susan Fox, the director of the state’s legislative division, said the case has been handed over to the attorney general’s office.
Mike Meloy, who represents the Campaign for Accountability, said his client has yet to receive all of the documents it requested.
He’s puzzled by the delay and surprised by allocation of money for the case.
“That’s a lot of money to spend on an open records case,” he said.
It’s unclear how much money has already been expended on the matter.