Republicans Testing Schweitzer’s Openness

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – The majority of public records requests to hit Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office have come from the political opposition, which is probing his scheduling, staff e-mails and his constituency account.

Republicans say they are testing the openness of the Schweitzer administration, which has made a point about being a champion of open and transparent government. The governor’s office says it has satisfied the requests — but the Republicans are far from satisfied.

“He puts on this facade of being a man of the people and open, but in reality he puts up barriers,” said Montana Republican Party Executive Director Chris Wilcox. “I think he does things that are designed to give folks the impression of openness.”

A review of records at the governor’s office shows most of the 21 requests under the state’s open record law over the past two years have come from Republicans, with a few from reporters and others.

The governor’s office said it’s not worried that Republicans may be on a fishing expedition for something that can be used against Schweitzer — although it suspects the requests could increase.

“We are happy to answer inquiries,” spokeswoman Sarah Elliott said. “We believe in open government and we are an open administration.”

Republicans have made requests for the governor’s schedule for different dates, e-mails and phone records. The responses given to the Republicans vary greatly.

In one case, state Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, asked for all of the e-mails from the governor’s staff during a 45-day period.

He was told he would be charged a potentially hefty sum for the time to have an information technology staff member work on the request, and be charged for a lawyer to review the e-mails to redact items, such as personnel issues, that would be considered private under state law — effectively stalling the request.

Requests from the Montana Republican Party regarding schedules were often fulfilled with copies of the governor’s schedule for the day requested.

However, other requests, such as the schedule for “key cabinet members,” were met with responses from the governor’s office asking for clarification or a letter that the bill for gathering extensive requests could be expensive.

In September the GOP asked for two years of records dealing with the governor’s schedule. It was told the request would require extensive staff time.

“Two years of his schedule is a lot of paperwork,” Elliott said. “At some point, when you are looking to produce boxes and boxes of documents and spending weeks and weeks of staff time, most people in the public would say that’s a waste of resources.”

She said Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, has been barraged with records requests from Republicans there.

“We just hope they don’t plan to do what they did in Wyoming, where they get so excessive that they are a waste of time and a waste of taxpayer money,” Elliott said.

And in a request for records dealing with the governor’s constituency account, the Republicans were told the governor’s office kept no records on that account.

The Associated Press, in making a similar request last year, was told by the governor that no spending records for that account were available since it was used to pay for his inaugural ball.

The Republicans say they are looking to show the governor is not responsive to records requests and that he actually has been making decisions behind closed doors.

The governor’s office pointed to policies it has — such as allowing reporters, or anyone, to sit in on all meetings the governor holds. And it noted its policy of sending Schweitzer’s advance schedule of official business — excluding events considered to be campaign or personal business — to reporters.

“It’s very unique,” Elliott said. “I think he is the only governor in the country to do that. When we tell people we do that, they are shocked.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.