Concerns over ethics violations have dogged Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his brother Walter since almost the first day of his administration. Now, in a week full of bad news for the Brothers Schweitzer, both are once again being questioned for ethical practices ranging from filling agencies with political patronage jobs to shaking down state employees for campaign contributions.
Those new to Montana may not recall the 2006 feature story "Walter Ego" by then-Independent reporter John S. Adams. Adams cracked open the tale of how Schweitzer, shortly after taking office, stuck his brother Walter in the Capitol as an intermediary for those wishing to meet and discuss state issues with the governor.
The problems Walter caused were many and varied, but primarily revolved around his function in the governor's office since he wasn't a state employee—and in fact was prohibited by nepotism laws from serving as one. Nonetheless, Walter, holding no official title, intervened in important governmental issues leaving those who routinely worked on such issues with a lose-lose choice: either deal with Walter or futilely complain about it to his brother.
Shortly after the story appeared, Walter quietly disappeared from the governor's office, but not from Helena political circles, where he remained active.
In the meantime, the governor had his own problems to deal with. Complaints of Schweitzer using heavy-handed tactics to "bully" legislators and others continued to surface on a regular basis, with some even making it to the press. But while such allegations are easily dismissed by those in power, what is not so easy to dismiss are lawsuits. Schweitzer soon found himself being investigated for violations of government ethics laws that prohibit using state resources for political purposes.
In a strange tale that is not yet over, Dennis Unsworth, commissioner of political practices appointed by Schweitzer, investigated a complaint that the governor had produced an Ag Day radio promotion that included his campaign slogan—"Montana's on the Move"—and used state resources to do so. An independent review ruled against Schweitzer, a fine was suggested, and the governor immediately said he would pay the fine in an obvious attempt to bury the embarrassment.
But that's not what happened. Instead, Unsworth ruled that he couldn't accept the governor's check until the final disposition of the case and, in a move that defies logic, the governor counter-sued his own appointee in a lawsuit which has yet to be resolved.
Following on the heels of this debacle came the governor's infamous speech to a national gathering of trial lawyers in Philadelphia in which he claimed to have influenced the outcome of the 2006 elections by intimidating vote watchers, muscling a county election official to withhold voting results, and then pressuring the Associated Press to prematurely call the Senate election for Jon Tester. The governor contends it was all a joke and he didn't really do the things he told the trial lawyers. But once again, the specter of ethics violations shadowed Schweitzer.
Zoom forward to August 2009. In an exhaustive article by Eric Newhouse in the Great Falls Tribune, a recent state employee alleges that Walter Schweitzer verbally assaulted her and solicited political contributions in the workplace. Complaining about it, she contends, resulted in her being fired from her position last week. Walter, who was appointed as deputy state auditor by newly elected State Auditor Monica Lindeen, claims he "can't recall" any such incidents, despite the cancelled checks the employee says she was forced to write to help retire Lindeen's campaign debt and for a fundraiser for Democratic Party chief Dennis McDonald's campaign to unseat Rep. Denny Rehberg.
Ironically, in the article, Unsworth cites the same ethics law that prohibits using state resources or offices for political purposes—the one the governor violated with his Ag Day radio blurbs. Lindeen announced Tuesday that she's ordering an independent review, but that the Hatch Act wouldn't apply to the investigation because the agency doesn't receive federal money.
While Walter is busy trying to side-step his potential ethics violations, Brother Brian is catching significant flak for bringing in his old college roommate Joe Maurier, from Colorado, to be the administrator of the Parks Division of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) two years ago. Schweitzer unceremoniously fired long-time and well-respected FWP director Jeff Hagener and replaced him with Maurier, who immediately and without public input, reorganized the agency.
Schweitzer then tossed a political patronage position as FWP Deputy Director to Art Noonan, a Butte Democratic operative who doesn't hunt and hasn't had a fishing license in 20 years. Adding to the mess, Maurier just hired an Ohio man to be head of the newly created Fish and Wildlife Division, as reported this weekend in a lengthy story by the Lee Newspaper's Jennifer McKee. Ohio has only whitetail deer as big game, counts "squirrels and rabbits" as game animals, and has no wild trout.
The governor also denounced former FWP Director Hagener, alleging Hagener had refused to reorganize the agency. Hagener, who had decided to "take the high road" and not comment on the significant changes in his former department, spoke out to say the governor had never made any such request to him.
What it all adds up to is trouble, perhaps big trouble, for the Brothers Schweitzer. The pattern of shaking down state employees for political contributions, filling state agencies with political patronage positions, and ignoring ethics laws continues to plague them. The governor's lame duck administration grows lamer—and more distracted—by the minute.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org