UM Law Professor’s Study Draws Schweitzer’s Ire

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A law professor who wrote a report criticizing how the state values certain types of property failed to properly disclose she was being paid by a cable company that wants to lower its property taxes by persuading lawmakers to change how the state Revenue Department values property, the president of the University of Montana said.

President Royce Engstrom also said the study by associate professor Kristen Juras paid for by Cablevison/Bresnan didn’t contain a disclosure saying her conclusions were her own and not those of the university.

Lee Newspapers of Montana reported that Gov. Brian Schweitzer complained to Engstrom last month about the study. Engstrom responded with a letter dated Aug. 27.

“I am sorry that one of our faculty members engaged in an activity that did not fully comply with existing policy,” Engstrom wrote to the governor. “Her activity may have created the impression that the University has a position on the specific matter of property taxation. It does not.”

But Engstrom noted the school is interested in policies that permit the state to invest in higher education.

“To the extent Professor Juras was making recommendations that decrease resources available to the state, she was not speaking for the University,” Engstrom wrote.

The cable company hopes to persuade lawmakers during the 2013 Legislature to change the law, which would lower the cable company’s taxes. Juras presented her study to a legislative committee in July, indicating during her oral presentation that her conclusions were her own.

Schweitzer said making such a change would shift taxes to homeowners and owners of small businesses, leading him to contact Engstrom.

“I asked him if it was the policy of the University of Montana to shift $100 million in taxes from a dozen out-of-state corporations to 45 Montana businesses and 350,000 homes,” Schweitzer said Friday.

But Engstrom said he didn’t know what the governor was talking about, so Schweitzer told him.

“You have a person who represents herself as a UM professor. You assume that someone who represents the law school represents the University of Montana,” Schweitzer recounted.

In Engstrom’s follow-up letter to Schweitzer following the conversation, he wrote that he was requiring Juras to write to both the cable company and lawmakers stating clearly her work was not done under the auspices of the school and that she should not have represented herself as a faculty member in the context of the cable company consulting work.

He also said Juras will have to provide an itemized list of University resources used in creating the study. Juras did most of the work through her private practice after the academic year ended, and mostly at her home in Great Falls. But Engstrom said she made photocopies and phone calls from the UM Law School.

He also said Juras will have to prove she followed employment laws in hiring UM Law School students, and will have to provide written requests according to UM policy if she intends to continue her work.

Juras said she regrets not putting a footnote in her report noting the study contained her views, not those of the school. She noted she did make that clear when she spoke to lawmakers.

“He (Schweitzer) didn’t attack my legal analysis,” she said. “He has never spoken to me. I presented a report that was critical in some aspects, but certainly not all aspects, of the Department of Revenue’s procedures, and the governor’s upset.

“If he (Schweitzer) wants to shut down professors that prepare reports that are contrary to his views, I believe that interferes with academic freedom. I believe professors ought to be able to criticize the government.”

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