Watchdog Group Files Lawsuit Against Sanders County Senator Seeking Records

Lawsuit alleges Sen. Jennifer Fielder never fulfilled records request relating to public land transfers

By Tristan Scott
State Sen. Jennifer Fielder of Thompson Falls, left, listens as Sen. Bob Keenan of Bigfork speaks at the 64th Montana Legislative Session in Helena in 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

A government watchdog group has filed a lawsuit alleging that Republican state Sen. Jennifer Fielder violated the Montana Constitution by failing to produce documents related to her work as CEO of a Utah-based organization seeking to place public lands in state control.

Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, was named CEO of the American Lands Council (ALC) one year ago and won re-election in November to her post in Senate District 7, which she has held since 2013.

The same month that Fielder took the reins at ALC, the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability (CfA) filed a public records request with Montana’s Legislative Services Division, asking for copies of all correspondence from Fielder’s legislative office related to, among other topics, federal lands and the American Lands Council.

The reason for the request, CfA states, is “to inform and educate the public about how Sen. Fielder has performed her functions as a state legislator and the extent to which she has used the resources and powers of her office to pursue interests that extend beyond her official duties.”

As of Feb. 13, the request still had not been processed, according to the group, which filed the suit in Lewis and Clark County District Court. The lawsuit names Fielder, as well as the Legislative Services Division.

“Sen. Fielder has defied Montana government transparency laws, apparently to avoid revealing the extent of her activities with the American Lands Council,” said CfA Executive Director Daniel Stevens.  “Given her intransigence, CfA has no choice but to file a lawsuit.”

The CfA bills itself as a private, nonprofit and nonpartisan watchdog group.

To fulfill the CfA’s request, Legislative Services Division Executive Director Susan Fox said her independent, impartial agency sent Fielder an Adobe PDF file of as many as 800 emails culled from her state legislative account in late July, as well as a 19-page spreadsheet cataloging the correspondence, but the agency has yet to disclose any of them to CfA.

Fielder said in a November 2016 interview that she hasn’t had time to comply with the group’s sprawling request, or to determine which of the emails constitute public record and which fall under the purview of her privacy rights.

“Sen. Fielder’s refusal to abide by the state’s constitution and open records law suggests she has something to hide,” Stevens said. “Montana citizens deserve to know whose interests Sen. Fielder is protecting, theirs or her own.”

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