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Montana Dems to GOP leaders: Investigate AG for power abuse, threats

Austin Knudsen, center, could become the subject of investigation if Montana Republicans act on a request by state Democrats.  

Montana House and Senate minority leaders called Thursday for the Republican Senate president and House speaker to “take immediate action” and direct the Montana Legislature’s special counsel to launch a probe into reports Attorney General Austin Knudsen and other officials used state resources, including law enforcement, to harass and intimidate physicians and staff at St. Peter’s Hospital in Helena.

“This harassment campaign is a deeply disturbing abuse of power by the Attorney General,” said Democrats Sen. Jill Cohenour, of East Helena, and Rep. Kim Abbott, of Helena. “Knudsen’s actions raise serious questions about his judgment and whether he is deserving of the trust invested in his office. The public deserves to know the facts, and Knudsen must be held to account.”

Earlier this week, the Independent Record reported Knudsen, a Republican, and two other public officials threatened doctors at the hospital, and the AG sent a patrol trooper there after a COVID-19 patient asked for ivermectin and was denied the treatment. Ivermectin is a drug that’s used to treat infections from parasitic worms but is not approved to treat the coronavirus.

A spokesperson from the Attorney General’s Office confirmed to the IR the AG was involved but denied any threats took place. AG spokesperson Kyler Nerison directed the Daily Montanan to his statement in the IR, where he said the office welcomed a conversation with any member of the Legislature but no Democrats had reached out.

The hospital told the Independent Record the conversations the public officials had with doctors and other staff were “deeply troubling” because the officials “were threatened and their clinical judgment was called into question.”

Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, many members of the public treated medical workers as heroes. However, months after March 2020, some people have harassed and threatened health care providers, who are caring for a growing number of patients in Montana, the No. 1 hot stop for infections in the country earlier this week.

In a text message Thursday, Kyle Schmauch, spokesperson for legislative Republicans, said President Mark Blasdel, of Kalispell, and Speaker Wylie Galt, of Martinsdale, had just received the letter from the Democratic leadership the same afternoon and likely would not have a response the same day.

In their letter, Cohenour and Abbott said a bill passed into law earlier this year created the special counsel position and empowers the Senate president and House speaker to direct that official to investigate activities of state officials and agencies. Cohenour and Abbott said the Montana Legislature has a duty to perform oversight, especially when questions of impropriety and abuse of power arise.

“As chief law enforcement officer of the state, the Attorney General holds an office of incredible authority and public trust,” the Democrats wrote. “Accordingly, Montanans expect that whoever holds that office will  conduct themselves with impeccable judgment and impartiality.

“The reporting in the Independent  Record raises serious questions if Attorney General Knudsen can meet those standards and whether he is abusing the powers of his office to further his personal agenda.”