HELENA – The Montana Democratic Party is losing a big donor after its congressional candidate criticized Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg for filing a lawsuit against the Billings Fire Department over a 2008 wildfire.
Lawyer Cliff Edwards, who represents Rehberg on the lawsuit, has given money in the past to the Democratic Party — as much as $5,000 in the 2008 elections cycle.
But the party won’t be getting any this time around after Democratic candidate Dennis McDonald’s criticized Rehberg over the lawsuit.
“I do not want a penny of mine going to him,” Edwards wrote in a recent letter to the party obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.
The lawsuit accused firefighters of pulling away from the fire too quickly, resulting in scorched trees and ground cover, and irreparable damage on a large section of land intended for home development at Rehberg Ranch Estates.
Edwards said in an interview the letter was a private communication and not meant to be public. He had sent it to Democratic Party chairman Jim Elliott, Rehberg and his wife Jan Rehberg who runs the ranch company represented in the lawsuit.
It was also sent to Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, whom Edwards said he will continue to strongly support with donations.
Edwards said he has largely favored Democrats with his donations, but party affiliation has no bearing on choosing clients.
McDonald has said Rehberg has plenty of money and doesn’t need to sue the citizens of Billings for more by attacking the actions of the “heroes” on the fire department. McDonald, who runs a ranch in Melville, and used to be a trial lawyer in California, said Edwards is doing what he needs to as Rehberg’s lawyer.
“It is clear that Rehberg’s lawsuit seeks money damages from the firefighters and taxpayers in Billings, this is a lawsuit to gain money,” McDonald said.
McDonald also has been critical of Rehberg’s involvement in a late-night boat crash last summer on Flathead Lake that seriously injured five passengers, and left the state lawmaker piloting the boat facing felony charges.
In his July 7 letter to Elliott, Edwards wrote the case is about management decisions and has merit.
“As a lawyer, he obviously didn’t read our complaint which is of public record. I also abhor his cheap shot last summer after the Flathead Lake accident,” Edwards wrote the party.
Rehberg’s re-election campaign manager said the congressman saw the letter when it was sent, and hasn’t given it any thought since.
Edwards said he will continue to support individual Democratic races around the state in the future.
Elliott, the party leader, said the party does not censure or pre-approve the statements of its candidates.
“Cliff is a good guy and he needs to do what he needs to do, and we need to do what we need to,” Elliott said. “I like Cliff. If he feels he needs to do that, he is within his rights to do that.”