A Washington, D.C., watchdog group filed suit Monday against Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, over her failure to produce public records the group asked for more than a year ago.
The lawsuit, filed by the Campaign for Accountability in District Court in Helena, also names the Montana Legislative Services Division and asks the court to order Fielder and the state agency to release the public records in question.
CfA Director Daniel Stevens said in a press release that “Sen. Fielder has defied Montana governmental transparency laws, apparently to avoid revealing the extent of her activities with the American Lands Council. Given her intransigence, CfA has no choice but to file a lawsuit.”
The organization filed the original request to examine public documents in February 2016, after Fielder became the CEO of the American Lands Council. “The primary purpose of ALC is to promote state control of federally-owned lands,” the lawsuit said.
The press release said that Fielder’s predecessor at the ALC, Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, resigned from his position after the CfA “uncovered documents showing he repeatedly had misused his legislative email and other state government resources to promote the interests of ALC, leading to an investigation by the Utah Attorney General.”
The lawsuit, filed on the CfA’s behalf by Helena lawyer Mike Meloy, said the organization’s original public information request asked to see copies of Fielder’s “transactions of legislative business since January 1, 2013 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.”
The CfA also asked to see all records related to office and travel expenses for Fielder and any of her staff members.
Fielder could not immediately be reached for comment Monday morning. However, she was quoted as saying in a Billings Gazette story last month that state laws regarding public information were not very clear.
“I think something needs to be done to make sure the public records requests coming are legitimate,” she was quoted as saying. “…Some of the requests we’re seeing are coming from these politically motivated organizations out of Washington, D.C., and they’re being used more as a tool of harassment.”
The lawsuit goes on to say that on March 2, 2016, Susan Fox, director of the Legislative Services Division, told CfA that she had been working with Fielder to fulfill the information request, and later that month the CfA received some records, including hard copies of some travel records “and a thumb drive containing some emails apparently contained on the Legislative Services email server.”
On June 16, Fox apologized to the CfA for delays in processing the request and said she had “had trouble contacting Sen. Fielder,” according to the suit. She said she hoped to get the rest of the information to the group by the end of June.
When nothing was delivered by late July, the CfA asked Fox for a status report, who responded by saying that “certain documents” had been gathered and forwarded to Fielder. Fox said she asked Fielder about her review of the records and was told: “Now that I have this document I will get through it as soon as I am able, although it is nearly 400 pages and I will have to work on it when I can find free time. … As I understand it there is no specific time frame in which it must be completed but I will try to get it done before the election.”
The lawsuit said Fielder was asked on Aug. 1 and again on Nov. 10 about the status of the records request, but as of Monday no additional records had been produced by either Fielder or the state agency.
The lawsuit cites Article II, Section 9, of the Montana Constitution, which states that “no person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”
It also cites the Montana Open Records Act, which provides “that every person has a right to examine or obtain a copy of any public information of this state.”
“Sen. Fielder’s refusal to abide by the state’s constitution and open records law suggests she has something to hide,” Stevens said in the press release. “Montana citizens deserve to know whose interests Sen. Fielder is protecting, theirs or her own.”