Just before Thanksgiving, Jonathan Motl, Montana’s commissioner of political practices, issued a ruling that found the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks violated state ethics laws by interfering in the ballot initiative to ban trapping on public lands. While the agency says it will contest the ruling, it does so at its peril. Political campaigns are no place for state agency interference and the potential for repercussions looms large.

In this case, Commissioner Motl found that Fish, Wildlife and Parks had allowed the Montana Trappers Association to use the agency’s trailer with displays of furbearing animals three times in 2014 while opposing a proposed ballot initiative to ban trapping on public lands. Ultimately, whether due in part to the illegal use of state resources or not, that initiative failed to secure enough signatures to get on the ballot.

The state agency claims it didn’t violate state ethics laws because none of its employees attended the events. That contention was blown away by the hearing officer and staff attorney for the Office of Political Practices, who said it would lead to the “absurd result” of basically allowing state employees to loan out state equipment to private individuals who could then use it for political purposes as long as the employees were not present.

The law itself seems abundantly clear that a public officer or employee “may not use public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel, or funds to solicit support for or opposition to any political committee, the nomination or election of any person to public office, or the passage of a ballot issue.”

The state-owned trailer full of expensive displays of stuffed furbearers was labelled with a very large logo clearly identifying it as “Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks State Furbearer Program” while the Trappers Association posted a large banner nearby urging visitors to the trailer to “Vote NO” on the ballot initiative.

Trap Free Montana Public Lands, the organization backing the initiative, then filed an ethics complaint with the commissioner of political practices that ultimately resulted in last week’s finding that Fish, Wildlife and Parks did indeed violate state ethics law and levied a $1,500 fine against the agency.

Prior to last week’s ruling, however, Fish, Wildlife and Parks had changed its policy to require any private entity using state equipment to sign an agreement to not use it for campaign purposes after receiving complaints of the use of the state-owned equipment by the Trappers Association. The Trappers Association refused to sign the agreement and has not used FWP’s trailer since.

Proponents of the trapping ban say the relationship between the trappers and the agency is “deep and pervasive,” adding, “to allow one small user group to influence them to this extent, it’s not necessarily in the best interest of the whole public.” Hard to argue with that, since the percentage of trappers compared to the rest of Montana’s population is infinitesimally small. Yet, reflecting the arrogance for which Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a long reputation since it receives little or no general fund money in its $75 million budget, the agency says it will continue to “be partners with that group and improve our relationship.”

Sometimes, and especially in the case of government agencies, it seems like it’s impossible for them to admit to wrongdoing. That would appear to be the case here and intransigence by the agency in the face of the law carries with it the potential for profound consequences.

It is best to remember that government agencies do not run themselves – they are there to serve the people who pay their salaries. Moreover, they do not write laws. Executive agencies must follow the laws passed by the legislature, the only branch of government granted law-making authority by the Constitution. The legislature also appropriates funding for the agencies and it’s easy to see that if state agencies get involved in political activity, they may find funding cuts and significant statutory blowback from legislators displeased with actions the agency took on the political issue.

In that regard, this issue lands not in the lap of a politically appointed agency director, but right back on the governor’s desk. It is imperative that Governor Bullock make it perfectly clear to all his agencies, not just Fish, Wildlife and Parks, that no state resources will ever be used for political purposes again. To do less is to both abdicate his leadership position and risk serious damage to Montana’s democratic processes.

George Ochenski's column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page. He can be reached by email at oped@missoulian.com.

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