Local Senators Call for Probe Into Whistleblower Retaliation

Lawmakers request legislative committee to investigate possible retaliation against state auditors

By Tristan Scott
State Sen. Dee Brown is seen at her desk in the Senate Chamber. Beacon File Photo

Two local Republican state senators are calling for an investigative probe into allegations of government retaliation against state auditors who raised concerns over questionable payments doled out by state officials.

State Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, and Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, wrote a letter to House and Senate members requesting that a special legislative committee appointed by leadership look into allegations of retaliation against whistleblower complaints from state government employees.

The request comes on the heels of news reports alleging “bullying and intimidation” of state government employees by agency and department officials, according to the local lawmakers, as well as a string of confidential settlements paid out to former employees, first reported by the Helena Independent Record in September.

The letters also come days after a wrongful termination lawsuit was filed in Lewis and Clark District Court against the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. In the suit, which also names as a defendant the agency’s director, Richard Opper, former DPHHS audit bureau chief Carol Bondy alleges her employment was terminated in violation of state and department policy after revealing possible misuse of state funds.

The lawsuit alleges that Bondy, a 17-year veteran of the department and the audit bureau chief for 14 years, was placed on administrative leave in August 2015 and fired that December “because she refused to violate public policy though directed to do so by DPHHS management.”

In a statement, Jon Ebelt, DPHHS spokesman, said the state prevailed in an administrative hearing before the Department of Labor and Industry, which affirmed that Bondy had been discharged due to misconduct, but he declined to comment further on the pending litigation.

“DPHHS takes seriously any allegations of wrongful termination, just as we take seriously any case of employee misconduct,” he stated. “In the interest of making the fairest decision to all involved, we do not comment on ongoing litigation.”

In the lawsuit, Bondy outlines several instances in which she allegedly reported mismanagement of funds by the department or government contractors to the Federal Office of the Inspector General, and was met with resistance from supervisors when she pursued high-risk audits.

The instances cited in the lawsuit include duplicate payments, manipulation of contract records, possible use of auditing as a political tool, and improper advances of state funds. She also accuses her supervisors and administration officials of violating public policy and auditing standards by vetoing 30 proposed audits, “which resulted in depriving the Audit Bureau of a full work load for several months.”

The lawsuit seeks an award of lost wages and fringe benefits for the four-year statutory period as well as an award of punitive damages.

“It’s appalling to think that any state employee would be retaliated against for shedding light on fraud and abuse within the workplace,” Keenan said. “The allegations that have surfaced over the past few months deserve the Legislature’s full attention, and we hope our colleagues support our call for an investigation.”

“This is exactly why I put in a bill draft for legislative oversight of the agencies,” Brown said. “They do anything they want when we’re gone after our 90-day sessions and come to the next legislature with their hands out because they’ve spent more money than we budgeted. We cannot continue doing business like this for the taxpayers’ sake. Something must change.”

Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann said a special investigative committee falls in line with the spirit of the state legislature’s duty to provide checks and balances on the executive branch of the state government.

“The Senate President does have the power to appoint an investigative committee, and I believe it is our inherent duty to investigate these expenditures and subsequent allegations of retaliation,” Essmann said.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

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