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Montana sued for failing to release emails of state senator from Thompson Falls

From the Montana fails to retain emails, digital communications as public records series
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Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls

Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls

HELENA — A national government ethics group filed a lawsuit Monday against Montana for failing to release public records of a Thompson Falls legislator it had requested a year ago.

Arguing that Montana violated the right to know guaranteed by the state constitution, the Campaign for Accountability filed a lawsuit in district court against the Legislative Services Division and Republican Sen. Jennifer Fielder for failing to release records requested under the Montana Open Records Act, which says “every person has a right to examine or obtain a copy of any public information.”

“Sen. Fielder has defied Montana government transparency laws apparently to avoid revealing the extent of her actions for the American Lands Council. Given her intransigence, the Campaign for Accountability had no choice to file a lawsuit,” Acting Executive Director Daniel Stevens said.

The nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., submitted a records request on Feb. 11, 2016 for copies for emails, calendar appointments, travel expenses and other records since 2013 related to Fielder’s work as a legislator on issues “related to federal lands, oil, gas, coal, mining, mineral products, timber, forestry, Utah State Representative Ken Ivory, ALC, Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Federalism in Action.” As a result of a similar request in Utah, the group had revealed that Ivory, who was then president of the American Lands Council, had used his state email address and authority as a legislator to encourage counties to purchase memberships to the group. Fielder took over leadership of the council as Ivory came under public scrutiny.

Fielder said Monday that she wrapped up her review and directed the Legislative Services Division to release the public records Monday morning after learning about the court filing from a reporter.

"It was not at the top of my priority list to spend time on a request from a Washington, D.C.-based political organization," she said, noting her campaign opponent had tried to construe the filing of the records request as proof of some wrongdoing. She called Monday's filing another "publicity stunt."

She called the request "odd" given that she had only led the American Lands Council as volunteer for two months when the request was filed and it was during the interim when she was doing little work as a legislator, suggesting the true motivation had been to smear her before Election Day.

Some Montana conservatives question the intentions of the Campaign for Accountability, noting it was founded in 2015 by former leaders of a different watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, that pundits paint as liberal. CREW has been at the center of recent lawsuits seeking clarification about how the policies of President Donald Trump might benefit his business interests and its director, Democratic strategist David Brock, spoke at a January meeting of the Democratic National Committee, according to Politico.

Stevens denied any characterization of the Campaign for Accountability as politically motivated, noting it has investigated corruption and abuse of power by both Republicans and Democrats. He said the group filed the request in Montana to see if Fielder also was abusing her public position to advance the work of her private job for the lands council as her predecessor had done in Utah.

Fielder denied any assertion that she had or would abuse her public office to advance the work of the lands council.

Fielder has previously told Lee Newspapers that she thinks legislators have had little guidance about how to fulfill public records requests and manage emails. She said Monday that new training offered in November provides some clarity and legislative staff have helped her organize her email with folders so future requests will not take so long to fulfill.

State law requires government officials to “respond in a timely manner.”

A month after filing the records request, the group did receive “hard copies of some of the travel records and a thumb drive containing some emails apparently contained on the Legislative Services email server,” read the filing. They were advised that legislative staff were working with Fielder “to obtain additional emails” from private accounts she might’ve used to conduct state business.

In June and July 2016, legislative services staff replied to CFA requests for updates, saying they were working with Fielder to release records before Election Day, including almost 400 pages they had pulled together for her to review. The group reached out to Fielder and legislative services again in August and November, offering to narrow the request, but did not receive any response, according to the suit.

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