HELENA, Mont. (CN) – A year is not “a reasonable time” to respond to a request for a state senator’s emails and expense records, according to a nonprofit government watchdog suing the state of Montana and the senator.
On Monday, the Campaign for Accountability sued Montana, its Legislative Services Division and state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, for failing to respond completely to a records request filed a year ago.
The Feb. 11, 2016, request asked for all of Fielder’s public records related to natural resources, federal lands, Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, the Utah-based American Lands Council, Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC, and Federalism in Action. It also asked for copies of travel expenses for Fielder and her staff.
Campaign for Accountability attorney Mike Meloy proceeded to send four more requests for the records between February and November last year.
The Legislative Services Division compiled hundreds of pages by March 2016, a portion of which was sent to Meloy. But the division sent another 400 pages to Fielder for her to review. Fielder was also asked to provide additional emails from other accounts.
This past June, Fielder told the services division, “As I understand, there is no specific time frame in which it must be completed but I will try to do it before the election,” according to the lawsuit. Meloy has yet to see the other pages.
“The new statute requires a response ‘within a reasonable time’ – the (Supreme) court hasn’t told us what that is – but I can predict with certainty that a year is not reasonable,” Meloy said. “This strikes me as typical of (someone) who thinks that if they don’t respond, the person will go away.”
Ivory created the American Lands Council in 2012 to get politicians in Western states to push for the transfer of federal public lands to state or local governments, similar to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s.
Fielder was elected to the Montana Legislature in November 2012, and began traveling to American Land Council events in Utah soon after. For the past three legislative sessions in Montana, she has sponsored land-transfer bills and led an interim legislative study of public-land management.
In 2016, Fielder took over as CEO of the American Land Council – two weeks before the records request was filed. She stepped up after Ivory ran into trouble for using his legislative time and email account to conduct American Land Council business and for making $135,000 – half of the council’s revenue – as its president in 2014. The Campaign for Accountability exposed Ivory’s conflict of interest by requesting his emails. Fielder has said she’s not being paid as CEO.
Fielder did not respond to a request for comment by press time but told the Missoulian newspaper on Monday that she was ready to release her emails.
“It was not at the top of my priority list to spend time on a request from a Washington, D.C.-based political organization,” Fielder told the Missoulian.
Under the Montana Open Records Act, government representatives must treat all records requests the same, regardless of their origin. The Montana Supreme Court reinforced that in a ruling this past September involving a records request that author Jon Krakauer made of the Montana Commissioner of Higher Education regarding his story on rape on college campuses.
Fielder told the Missoulian that last year’s records request might have been an attempt to smear her reputation prior to her reelection. She also called Monday’s lawsuit a “publicity stunt.”
The Campaign for Accountability has ties to another progressive watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which focuses on the conduct of all federal politicians. Conservatives, however, question the group’s objectivity since most of their lawsuits have focused on Republicans. It is currently taking legal action against President Donald Trump over the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Meloy said if his clients had wanted to smear Fielder, they could have filed the lawsuit before the election.
“They just genuinely would like to see the records. Because her regular employment is so intimately connected to what she does in the Legislature, they wanted to see how much of her job she was mixing up with her legislative duties,” Meloy said.