HELENA - A longtime state Commerce Department official says the Schweitzer administration forced him to quit Friday because he responded to a Republican senator's inquiry about why $3.5 million in local government grants were being stalled.
David Cole, administrator of the department's Community Development Division until Friday, said Wednesday he had planned to retire March 31 to end a 37-year state government career. Last Friday was going to be his last day in the office anyway, because he planned to use his remaining vacation and compensatory time before month's end.
Instead, Cole said, he was ordered to pen a hasty, handwritten resignation letter and quit immediately Friday. It cost him $6,000 in gross pay and left a sour taste after a career that saw him twice win the governor's excellence award, including one in 2008 under Schweitzer.
"I've worked for seven governors going back to Forrest Anderson," Cole said. "I've never seen anything like this."
Gov. Brian Schweitzer's administration denied engineering Cole's ouster.
"We didn't know about it till after it happened," said Sarah Elliott, Schweitzer's spokeswoman.
Cole said he believes he was pushed out because the administration was unhappy over the disclosure of the grant delays. Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, revealed the delays last week and demanded an explanation from the administration.
Cole feels especially bad for the local governments counting on the grants that are now on hold.
"They viewed that like it was money in the bank," he said. "I think they were totally blindsided."
Last week, Lewis and other GOP lawmakers criticized the Schweitzer administration for holding back $3.5 million in grants intended to go to local governments for water, sewer and other projects and $3.6 million for local historic preservation projects.
Lewis said he was especially interested in what had happened to the grant for Golden Valley County, which is in his Senate district. The money was earmarked for a new fire hall in Ryegate to replace one that burned down last year. County officials began pressing Lewis about why the grant money hadn't been sent, so he began checking.
Lewis, a former state budget director under Democratic and Republican governors, said he was disturbed by what happened to Cole and feels personally responsible for his departure.
"The end result is a good and loyal public employee ends up on the street," Lewis said. "I think it further puts state employees in fear that they are going to be penalized for being willing to speak out about issues in their areas of expertise."
Schweitzer's budget director, David Ewer, said last week that the local grants had been put on hold for now because of state government's budget problems stemming from plummeting tax collections.
Cole told Lee Newspapers he came into work late Friday morning after a doctor's appointment and was told to report immediately to Commerce Director Anthony Preite's office. The agency's chief counsel, Marty Tuttle, was present.
"They said, ‘Don't go back to your office; they're checking your computer to see if you had e-mailed Lewis,' " Cole said. "They had direction from the governor's office that I was to tender my resignation immediately. They said I should leave the building as soon as I could.
"I've known Tony for 32 years. You could tell he felt terrible. He walked me out of the building. He said he was sorry."
Cole said one of the two Commerce officials told him the "resignation" orders came from Vivian Hammill, Schweitzer's chief of staff.
Hammill said through a spokeswoman she wasn't aware that Cole had resigned until after it had occurred.
Cole said he had never e-mailed Lewis, but had responded to a Feb. 26 inquiry from Lewis about the held-up grants. Before responding, however, he cleared it with Preite and the department's deputy director, Andy Poole.
Cole said that on Jan. 22, the governor's office told the Commerce Department to stop processing the local government grant applications because of the looming state budget problems.
"We were told not to tell local governments (the grants) were on hold, but that they were under review by the budget office," Cole said.
On March 1, Cole said he told Preite and Poole that Lewis had left a message asking what happened to the Golden Valley County grant.
"I told them I wasn't going to lie to a state senator," Cole said. He said Poole told him: "We don't expect you to."
When Cole returned to his office, the phone was ringing, and it was Lewis. Cole explained that the grants were being held up.
Preite had a different version of Cole's resignation. Cole came in Friday morning and gave him a handwritten letter saying he decided to retire immediately, Preite said.
Asked if he was ordered to force Cole to resign by the governor or his staff, Preite said, "If it did occur, I couldn't discuss that. You get into personnel stuff. Before I talked to anybody that morning, he came in and said he wanted to retire immediately."
Asked what kind of an employee Cole was, Preite said, "David Cole was a good employee."
After Lewis' inquiry, Preite decided to sign the 22 local government grant contracts that had been sitting on his desk. Local government officials have to sign these contracts and return them to Preite to get the money.
Cole said he sent out the same letter that had gone to more than 100 local governments, but it erroneously said that they would get 90 percent of the money after Preite signed it and 10 percent when the project is completed.
"It was just viewed as a terrible error, because the administration didn't want the money to go out," Cole said. "I take responsibility."
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.