Ochenski: Hear no evil, see no evil

Who’s manning the helm on Martz’s ship of state?



In spite of a state budget, health, and education crisis, the criminal investigation into the use of state phones for political fundraising by Gov. Martz’s office may be the issue that costs her the governorship. Now, with the Martz ship of state crashing on the rocks, the rats are jumping overboard and the conflicting versions of reality are starting to pour out. Through it all, like a carved monkey with its hands over its ears and eyes, the governor maintains she simply “didn’t know” what was going on in her office.

The latest investigation involving Gov. Martz is not the one in which she bought land from ARCO for below market prices while sitting in a position to make decisions on ARCO’s cleanup of the Clark Fork Superfund sites. Nor is it the one where she pulled her top policy advisor out of the hospital in contradiction to police orders after his drunk driving accident killed the House majority leader. The latest investigation is about using state phones in the governor’s office for political fundraising—which is flat-out illegal.

First, the press found out about the use of state phones to call large donors to a political committee known as the Montana Majority Fund. The governor reacted by denying knowledge of any such use and ordered a quick in-house audit by her own chief of staff. Former Policy Advisor Shane Hedges and Special Projects Coordinator Betti Hill are blamed for using the state phones. Shane gets fired as director of the Montana Majority Fund and Betti resigns from the governor’s office. Conveniently, Martz herself is found blameless of any wrongdoing—even though she called the same long distance numbers, sometimes only minutes after the staffers, and spoke to the same political donors. The governor contends all her calls were on “state business.”

Next, the legislative auditor, who runs the fraud hot line and investigates uses of state resources for the Legislature, is asked to look into it. After one quick peek into this deep, ugly, bucket of worms, the matter is referred directly to the attorney general’s office for full-blown criminal investigation. A criminal investigation, unlike a friendly in-house audit, carries some significant risks in regard to telling the truth—and that’s what’s driving the current action.

In the latest news, several anonymous sources who worked for Gov. Martz told reporters that the political fundraising was “regularly discussed at daily management meetings in the governor’s office,” and “was talked about freely” by Martz appointees. The source is quoted as saying: “This was a very open activity in the office. It was not hidden. I’m positive she was fully aware of it. How could she not be?”

Yet, believe it or not, the governor, who was the honorary chair of the Montana Majority Fund, says she “did not know about staff activities on state time,” and only “became aware of this issue when the investigation was done by Chief of Staff Barbara Ranf.” So who is telling the truth? One thing is certain: Both versions can’t be true.

The “anonymous sources,” who say they fully expect to tell their version of the stories to state criminal investigators, are now tying in at least some of the loose ends in this complex story. For instance, one of the sources says Leo Giacometto and Shane Hedges were running the Montana Majority Fund. Giacometto, formerly Sen. Conrad Burn’s top man in Washington, came back to Montana and scooped up a fat job as Martz’s appointment to the Northwest Power Planning Council. Shane Hedges, Martz’s wunderkind campaign manager, was hired as the governor’s top policy advisor until his accident coming back from a dinner and drinkfest paid for by guess who? The Montana Majority Fund. And who was at the meeting? Martz’s two top top-level national campaign consultants: Jim Innocenzi from D.C. and John Maddox from Utah.

Does it get juicier? Unfortunately, it does. Mary Jo Fox, Martz’s former communications director who was also canned by the governor, says Maddox and Innocenzi continued to be involved with Martz after the election and even edited the governor’s 2001 state of the state speech. Fox says: “It was about Judy and how to set her up for and win another term.”

But wait: Do national campaign consultants work for free? Of course not. So who paid them? Can you guess by now? Even though the Martz campaign fund for 2004 doesn’t show any payments to these guys, the good old Montana Majority Fund shows a $38,000 dollar payment to Maddox last year.

With politics and money so deeply involved, what’s left? Oh yeah, the environment. Turns out Tim Blixeth, one of the big contributors to the Montana Majority Fund, is building the millionaire’s club next to Big Sky.

Unfortunately, the terraforming underway as he transforms a once-pristine high alpine meadow into golf courses and mega-view home sites, has trashed streams and racked up hundreds of environmental violations with potentially millions of dollars in fines and penalties. There have already been some reductions in the fines, and some might suspect the frequent calls from the governor to Blixeth are helping to straighten out this “state business.” It also wouldn’t be out of the question to suspect the high-end, three-day fundraiser bash Blixeth threw for Martz in Palm Springs provided an excellent opportunity to discuss such matters. But, according to the governor, she “didn’t need to know” about it.

It seems impossible that, despite contradictions from members of her own staff, Gov. Martz would continue to claim she didn’t know a thing. Not about the office fundraising, not about the campaign activities, not about the environmental violations. Yet, in full view of an increasingly astounded and skeptical public, the great political game of “hear no evil, see no evil” goes on. If the person sitting in the state’s highest elected position doesn’t even know what’s going on in her own office, how can she claim to “lead”—and why would we want her to? 

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.


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