Flathead Democrats Request Ethics Probe of Republican Senator

By Beacon Staff

A decision by a Republican lawmaker to help a construction firm pay for its share of an environmental cleanup in Kalispell with state money has prompted the Flathead County Democrats to call for a probe into whether the move violated state ethics laws. But the lawmaker in question, Kalispell Sen. Greg Barkus, said the funding helps defend a local business against cost overruns by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that defy all reason.

Earlier this month, Barkus amended a budget bill to pay $600,000 toward Swank Enterprises’ share of environmental mitigation costs at the former site of the Kalispell Pole and Timber yard, a project the state DEQ has been studying for years. The Senate Finance and Claims Committee passed the amendment on a party line vote April 3, with all Republicans supporting it.

That provision drew criticism from Democrats as well as the DEQ. And when the House rejected the Senate’s version of the budget later in April, House Republican Leader Scott Mendenhall of Clancy blasted the provision to cover Swank’s cleanup cost, calling it an example of “pork-laden earmarks.”

Last week, Mark Holston, the incoming Flathead County Democratic Party chairman sent a letter to the state commissioner of political practices, county attorneys in Flathead and Lewis and Clark counties, and the Legislature’s chief legal counsel asking them to pursue whether Barkus’ amendment represented a “potential ethics conflict.” The letter also asked for investigation into whether Barkus failed to disclose any personal business ties with Swank Enterprises through his work as a financial analyst for D.A. Davidson & Co.

In a later interview, Holston emphasized the request for an ethics probe was not a direct accusation of impropriety by Barkus, but that it raised questions.

“Why a $600,000 bailout for a private corporation at taxpayers’ expense?” Holston asked. “It just doesn’t sound or feel right, so it leads you to think, what’s behind it?”

Barkus, however, contends that covering Swank’s share of cleanup at the site is only fair, considering the extraordinary amount the estimate of the mitigation’s cost by DEQ has ballooned after Swank agreed to pay a portion of it.

“I’m not trying to pad Swank’s pockets in any way, shape or form; I’m just trying to right a wrong, in my opinion,” Barkus said. “In this case I believe that DEQ is being very disingenuous in their relationship with this party.”

The site of the former Kalispell Pole and Timber yard, as well as an oil refinery, near where Wal-Mart in Evergreen currently stands, suffers from soil and groundwater polluted by petroleum and other toxins dumped there for years during the first half of the 1900s. Fourteen years ago Swank purchased a small parcel of land there to build a storage facility for equipment, and – despite not causing any of the pollution – agreed to pay for 2 percent of the cleanup costs. But that was when DEQ estimated the cleanup costs of the site would be, at most, $10 million.

After two more subsequent studies of the site, DEQ now estimates the cleanup cost to be around $32 million, putting Swank’s share at $640,000. The majority of the cleanup will be paid for by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which took over the property from Kalispell Pole and Timber, and the state.

In an April 22 letter to lawmakers explaining the reasoning behind his amendment, Barkus wrote, “The construction company has shown a willingness to pay what was originally asked,” and added that for the state to “then come back to a business that has done nothing wrong and ask to cover costs 20 times the original estimate is simply wrong.”

The $600,000 would come out of what is known as the state’s Orphan Share account, a fund financed by taxes on oil and gas production and metal mining. Barkus said after explaining to House Republicans critical of his amendment that the funds would not be drawn from the general fund, they rescinded their complaints about it.

Holston said that given the amount of campaign contributions the state GOP receives from the construction industry, checking out the reasons behind Barkus’ amendment is justified.

“It’s no big news story that senior Republican politicians and legislators are cozy with the construction industry,” Holston said. “It would seem obvious to most people that there is at least a perception of impropriety.”

Last week Senate Majority Leader Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, responded to Holston’s letter and defended Barkus, writing that the Kalispell senator “violated no ethics rule or campaign finance law” because the amendment doesn’t mention Swank specifically, and because Barkus has always disclosed his work in the financial industry when it was relevant to legislation.

In Peterson’s letter, Barkus responds to Holston’s request for information regarding financial dealings with Swank Enterprises, writing that he never received any “economic benefit” from any legislation he has ever worked on, and added, “I do not feel it is necessary to disclose any relationship I may have had with Mr. Swank in the past as a result of any account relationship he may have had with D.A. Davidson & Co. as a matter of company policy and applicable privacy laws.”

It’s unclear what the next step is for the Democrats’ investigation request. Barkus said the jurisdiction of the state commissioner of political practices is limited to election activity, and so, in this case, the Senate Ethics Committee will take up the requested probe only if it is referred by the Rules Committee. Peterson chairs the Rules Committee. Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher and Flathead County Ed Corrigan both said they would wait to see what action, if any, the Legislature took on the complaint before considering taking it up themselves.

As of last week, the amendment is still in the state budget, and Barkus remains unmoved by Democratic assertions of impropriety.

“I don’t feel I need to justify anything to the Flathead Democratic Party,” he said.