Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) The Montana Human Rights Bureau found reasonable cause to believe the Attorney General’s Office engaged in unlawful discrimination during the hiring process following an investigation into the Montana Department of Justice.

The investigator with the bureau determined that the office did not hire attorney Andres Haladay because of his political beliefs, even though a hiring committee determined he was the best qualified for the job. That committee was ultimately overruled by former lieutenant attorney general Kris Hansen, who has since died.

Haladay was applying for the position of Agency Legal Services Bureau Chief in November 2021 and was asked to provide a cover letter, resume and an essay “regarding the responsibility of the government to the people of Montana.”

According to the Human Rights Bureau investigator, the essay reflected Haladay’s personal political beliefs, “which could generally be construed as liberal or progressive.” Haladay is also a former member of the Helena City Commission and told the bureau that his political beliefs were likely known in the community.

According to the written report, obtained by the Daily Montanan, the investigator noted, “Although Haladay was aware his personal beliefs conflicted with those of the current DOJ administration, Haladay felt he should answer the essay prompt honestly. As a result, Haladay’s essay discussed his opinion on (the) role of government as relates to issues such as abortion, climate change and other topics of political discourse.”

Haladay has also worked for the State of Montana as the deputy chief legal counsel for the Montana Department of Corrections. He has been an attorney for more than a decade.

The Montana Department of Justice did not respond Wednesday to inquiries or requests for interview on this story.

Three candidates were selected for interview by the committee and Haladay was ranked second. However, after the first candidate withdrew, he became the top candidate, but the third-ranked candidate, Pat Risken, was selected instead.

Haladay’s essay includes references to climate change, argues for protecting “a woman’s right to seek and obtain a lawful abortion from the provider of her choice,” as well as concluding the Montana Constitution “supports more than a responsibility of mere equal protection. Rather, it argues for a concept of equality that recognizes that a level playing field can only be level when it accounts for societal disparities that limit the opportunities and protections of thousands of Montanans.”

The interim Agency Legal Services Bureau Chief, who was a part of the hiring committee, described Haladay as “talented and stellar,” noting that he had plenty of litigation experience. She described Haladay to the investigator as a “perfect fit.”

Lieutenant Attorney General Kris Hansen, at the time the top deputy for the department, did not consult the hiring committee before passing up Haladay and instead offering the position to Risken.

Risken worked in the new position, according to court filings. However, he is not currently listed on the department’s website. According to state’s database, Risken’s salary is approximately $96,262 per year. Attempts to reach him on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

A human resources specialist working for the Montana Department of Justice said that while working with Hansen, she was “direct and to the point,” telling the HR specialist that “she did not want to explain her reasoning.”

Meanwhile, Risken, who was ranked lower, had a much different take on Montana in his essay:

“To the greatest extent possible government should be local with minimal intervention by the state of federal government. The role of government is not paternal and should be limited. Individuals must recognize that the government cannot and will not expand at all levels in order to relieve individuals of responsibility for themselves and their endeavors… The government does not exist as a safety net and should not react to every wave, concern or popular notion of the societal body.”

Moreover, the committee raised concerns about Risken’s qualifications – concerns that were not raised in Haladay’s application.

“Glossed over a lot of the subsets of the questions … oral argument was not good,” according to materials produced by the hiring committee on Risken. “(A)rrogance could come through if an employee is not performing well.”

In addition, one committee member raised concerns about Risken’s management style and not working well with others.

Hansen told the human resources specialist that she “just overruled the panel’s decision.”

“When the DOJ asserts Risken was a better candidate for the Bureau Chief position, the available evidence suggests otherwise,” the investigator said. “When considering merit and qualification, the hiring panel raised concerns. Not only did the hiring panel rank Risken last among the candidates interviewed, but notes from the panel display several reasons for the DOJ to conclude he was not well suited for the position.”

The DOJ told the Human Rights Bureau investigator that it couldn’t have known about Haladay’s political views, therefore it could not have discriminated.

“Evidence also suggests this assertion by the DOJ lack(s) credibility,” the investigator said. “As noted above, the essays submitted by Haladay and Risken displays an easily discernible distinction between the political ideologies presented by the candidates. On top of that, Haladay was an elected official servicing for eight years on the Helena City Commission. As such, his political beliefs were public knowledge.”