BILLINGS - A day after a Gazette public information request showed he wrote a racial slur in an email, Yellowstone County Treasurer Max Lenington apologized for using the "N-word" — but even so, at least one county commissioner, the NAACP and others are calling for his resignation.
“It’s very, very disappointing that an elected official in our community would go to these extremes … as a member of this community, I would ask that he resign and move on,” County Commissioner Bill Kennedy, a Democrat, said of Lenington, the Republican Yellowstone County treasurer, assessor and superintendent of schools.
“It was not for public consumption. I do apologize,” Lenington said Friday of the email in question, which he sent using his government email account.
In the Nov. 13, 2012, email, Lenington wrote that President Barack Obama must have been re-elected because “... there are more lesbians, queers, Indians, Mexicans and n— than the rest of us!” (The Gazette has chosen not to completely reproduce the word that Lenington wrote.)
Thursday night he defended his use of the racial epithet by saying, “you’ve got to get out with the real people because you’ll see that people still use that word periodically. This is Montana ... this isn’t Chicago, this isn’t Washington.”
Rosemary Lytle, president of the Colorado, Montana and Wyoming conference of the NAACP, condemned Lenington’s words and called for his resignation.
“We know that ultimately, no matter who uses it, it’s always an insult,” she said of the N-word. “It always torments, just as it always has tormented African Americans and people of African descent in this country.”
She went on to say that Montanans, no matter their race or ethnicity, should feel insulted and rise against Lenington’s characterization of Montana as a state where such language is acceptable.
Eran Thompson, the head of Not in Our Town Billings, a grass-roots group formed in response to local hate crimes in the early 1990s, also called for Lenington’s resignation.
“Enough is enough ... I can’t believe that he thinks that little of our community,” he said. “And shame on our community if we allow him to get away with it.”
Lenington, 69, said he first started working for the county as a deputy assessor in 1969 and was first elected to public office in 1982. Since then he has been re-elected numerous times.
He said he goes back to “the old days in the '50s,” and that his parents used the N-word when he was a kid, making it difficult for him to break the habit of using it as well. Even so, he claimed, he has never used the word in public.
Thursday night he said he planned to serve out the rest of his current term in office, which ends Dec. 31, 2014.
When asked Friday afternoon if he had any plans to resign, Lenington said he is waiting to be advised by the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office and by the Yellowstone County commissioners before making a decision.
Jim Reno and John Ostlund, the two Republican Yellowstone County Commissioners, both said Lenington’s words are unacceptable and that he at the very least needed to apologize.
The Yellowstone County Republican Party also denounced the official’s email.
“Mr. Lenington's language is repugnant, and his attempts to justify it are unacceptable. That kind of intolerance does not reflect the values of Yellowstone County,” Jennifer Owen, chair of the Yellowstone County Republicans said in a statement. “As an elected official, Mr. Lenington ought to be a model of civil discourse. Resorting to slurs and epithets like these is beneath the dignity of public office.”
County Attorney Scott Twito said Friday his office is investigating whether Lenington’s actions constitute official misconduct or if Lenington violated his oath of office as an elected official.
If so, a petition outlining Lenington’s misconduct could send the issue to voters, who would have the option of recalling him from office.
The civil division of the County Attorney’s Office could have a report on their investigation done by the end of next week, Twito said.
The Gazette’s public information request turned up dozens of questionable emails sent from Lenington's government account, including more racially charged forwards in which he indicated his agreement. The request also uncovered more than 30 emails over several months about Lenington's purchase of a customized Triumph motorcycle from a company in Iowa, which could violate the county’s email policy.
Sunday’s Gazette will feature a closer look at those emails and more on the legal process that could lead to Lenington's removal from office.