HELENA – Republican legislative leaders created a panel Friday to investigate the legitimacy of millions of dollars paid to state employees in confidential settlements since Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock took office.
House Speaker Austin Knudsen and Senate President Scott Sales cited a December memo by the Legislative Audit Division that found Montana had paid nearly $3 million between 2013 and 2017 from two government accounts designated for settlements.
By comparison, settlement payouts totaled $1.2 million between 2003 and 2012, according to the auditor’s data.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said a new legislative committee of six Republicans and four Democrats will investigate how the settlements were made and whether they should be made public.
“Settlement expenditures seem to have skyrocketed under the current administration,” Thomas said. “We’ve got public money being used and it’s being done under wraps.”
Bullock’s budget director, Dan Villa, disputed that payments have spiked since Bullock took office in 2013. The auditor does not mention that the administration created a new account in 2013 to consolidate settlement payments that were previously made across various areas of state government, Villa said.
That account is one of the two that the legislative auditor’s office used to track settlement payments, but the auditor does not note the account did not exist before 2013, Villa said.
“The data that is being shown is skewed because it’s not showing that we created the account to be more transparent,” he said.
Legislative auditor Angus Maciver did not return a call for comment. Thomas said legislative leaders and the auditor dismissed Villa’s explanation of the spike as an accounting adjustment as not credible.
Administration officials have repeatedly declined to detail information about settlements in state employee grievances such as wrongful termination, citing individual privacy in personnel matters.
Villa said some cases, such as an employee’s claims of harassment, will always be unquestionably private, but the administration is reviewing whether to publicly disclose more information from settlements that do not fall in that category.
Villa said he believes the investigation is being driven by partisan politics, but that the administration will cooperate “to the extent that they have questions that aren’t politically motivated.”
Thomas said he expects the panel to have access to the settlement information the administration has blocked from the public.
“I doubt they’d have to use subpoena power, but they could,” Thomas said. “If there is anything going on, we’ll find out.”
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