HELENA – When a former law partner gave a battered, leather-bound book to Montana’s new attorney general, Tim Fox, neither man recognized the name John B. Clayberg on the hand-scrawled inscription from 1891 that was on an inside page.
Fox looked up Clayberg on a whim and discovered the previous owner of that volume of “Abbott’s Trial Brief on the Facts” was also Montana territory’s last attorney general before it became a state in 1889.
Now the book serves a dual purpose. It is strategically positioned to cover a blemish on the historic desk used for decades by Montana attorneys general. More importantly, it is a reminder to Fox, who succeeded now-Gov. Steve Bullock last month, that the office is bigger than one person.
“I’m a temporary officeholder,” Fox said. “And my hope is that like ... Mr. Clayberg and Mr. Bullock and others, I can do some good things.”
Forty-three days after he became the first Republican attorney general in 20 years, Fox spoke to the Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview on topics from the transition to his first elected office to suing the federal government as one of his first major acts.
Fox, 55, spent 25 years as an attorney in private and public practice. He grew up in Hardin near the Crow Reservation, and the influence of Native American culture on Fox, who is not Indian, can be seen in the ceremonial dress and paintings hanging from his office wall.
He also is a former University of Montana track star and a volunteer coach at Carroll College. A Montana license plate that reads “HURDLER” sits behind his desk in a nod to Fox’s glory days.
Fox’s first 1 1/2 months in office have consisted largely of reviewing the cases left over from Bullock’s tenure, meeting with the Department of Justice’s attorneys, setting a legislative agenda and fleshing out a budget plan for the 700-person department.
“For the most part, in terms of the legal work, there isn’t too much I haven’t seen already,” Fox said. “I’m not going to tell anyone that I’m an expert in every field, but certainly I have a pretty good working knowledge of the law, particularly Montana law, so that I was able to hit the ground running.”
Fox is the only Republican among the five elected statewide officeholders who preside over the state Land Board, which also includes Bullock, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Monica Lindeen.
The attorney general has met with each of those four Democrats. His staff regularly coordinates with Bullock’s staff on legal issues that affect the state, Fox said.
Bullock’s office says communications between them have been good. Bullock spokeswoman Judy Beck says the transition has been smooth and they have worked well together on legislation to name the state Justice Building after former attorney general Joe Mazurek, who died last year.
But differences also have arisen. Fox announced on Feb. 14 that Montana would join a lawsuit with 10 other states to challenge a law that Congress passed after the 2008 financial meltdown to strengthen regulations over the financial industry.
Before the announcement, Fox’s aides spoke about it with Bullock’s staff. The new governor disagreed with the decision, but Fox wasn’t asking – he was giving the new governor a heads-up.
Fox took the view that the Dodd-Frank law – named after the lawmakers who sponsored the bill – gave too much power to unelected bureaucrats and placed overly burdensome regulations on community banks.
“Let’s face it, Montana and Montana’s banks and Montana’s consumers didn’t cause the 2008 financial crisis, but we’re certainly paying the price for the decisions that Congress has made to try to address that,” he said.
The governor respects the responsibilities of the attorney general as an independently elected official, Beck said. Bullock himself addressed the lawsuit in a meeting with reporters Wednesday.
“I worked hard as attorney general to make sure that the states had a seat at the table and enforcement ability under Dodd-Frank. So it certainly is not a decision I would have made,” he said.
Fox said he believes there are more things he and Bullock can agree on than they don’t and that he will continue to consult with the governor on large matters – to a point.
“I’ve told my staff that’s what we’re going to do here until such time as it turns out that it’s not productive or isn’t well received,” Fox said. “But I have every reason to believe it is going to be productive and well received.”
Along with the Mazurek bill, Fox’s legislative agenda so far consists of proposals to require sex offenders to provide a DNA sample and to allow district judges to assign a tier level to sex offenders who don’t already have one.
He also is pushing stricter penalties against repeat drunk drivers, an increase in the law enforcement presence in eastern Montana communities strained by the Bakken oil boom and a boost in the number of Division of Criminal Investigation agents.
Long term, Fox said a major goal is to improve the conditions that he saw as a child growing up near an Indian reservation. He said he would like to have a staff member focused solely on Native American issues who would improve the communications between the different law enforcement jurisdictions covering Montana’s seven reservations and back tribal efforts to improve public safety.
“These are people that have had a huge impact in my life,” he said. “And I resolved that during my time as attorney general here, we’re not going to let jurisdictional barriers get in the way of trying to reduce crime and reduce poverty and anything else we can do in Indian Country.”