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Groups sue Governor’s Office, state over public records delay

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte

Two organizations are suing the state of Montana for tardy responses to public records requests. But it’s not the first time the Gianforte administration has dragged its heels on providing information.

On Tuesday, in Lewis and Clark County District Court, the Montana Environmental Information Center and Earthworks filed a complaint saying the Governor’s Office and the Department of Administration have taken too long to respond to a Nov. 29 request for public records.

Montana’s public records laws give citizens access to all state documents and communications involving public agencies, except sections that contain information related to citizens’ personal privacy. This helps people keep a closer watch on agency actions.

The problem is the law only requires that state agencies provide the requested information “in a timely manner.” “Timely” is not defined. Recently, several requests indicate the Gianforte administration’s definition appears to be several months instead of weeks as with the previous administration.

Three and a half months have gone by since the two organizations submitted their request. The Missoula Current’s requests for comment from the Governor’s Office weren’t returned by press time.

“We have a fundamental, constitutional right to examine the records of state government in Montana, including any communications that the Governor’s office may have had with Hecla Mining,” said Anne Hedges, MEIC director of Policy and Legislative Affairs, in a release. “As the old saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant for mold in government. The public should know whether the governor dropped the Bad Actor matter at the request of an Idaho-based mining company and left Montana taxpayers and sovereign tribes holding the bag.” 

The two organizations requested a number of documents and communications between Gov. Greg Gianforte, Hecla Mining Corporation and its CEO, Phillips S. Baker Jr. They also requested documents related to any influence the Governor’s Office might have had over the Department of Environmental Quality’s enforcement of Montana’s “Bad Actor” law in a case filed against Hecla and Baker in 2018.

The 2001 Montana Legislature added “bad actor” provisions to the state Metal Mine Reclamation Act, mandating that any mining company or company leader that defaults on their cleanup responsibilities is barred from receiving any subsequent permits to mine in Montana.

In 2018, DEQ found that Baker fit the qualifications of a bad actor, having been the chief financial officer of Pegasus Gold Incorporated from 1994 to 1998. Pegasus Gold operated three cyanide heap leach gold mines in Montana: the Zortman Landusky Mine near the Fort Belknap Reservation, the Basin Creek Mine near Helena, and the Beal Mountain Mine near Butte.

In 1998, Pegasus Gold declared bankruptcy and walked away, leaving little money to reclaim the mines, leaving it up to Montana taxpayers. 

But after Gianforte took office, DEQ dropped three years of legal work in July and said it wouldn’t enforce the bad actor provision. As justification, DEQ Director Chris Dorrington, Gianforte’s appointee, said the lawsuit wouldn’t yield any reimbursement.

MEIC isn’t the only entity to deal with slow responses from the Gianforte administration.

Montana Trout Unlimited spokesman Clayton Elliott said he waited more than six months last year for Fish, Wildlife & Parks to respond to his request for information provided to the FWP commission on native fisheries. When he did get it, it was the same information FWP had posted to the commission website.

Sportsmen’s groups, such as the Skyline Sportsmen, have also reported delays in getting information from FWP. They finally got their documents after Sen. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, intervened with the department.

At the end of the summer, the Missoula Current submitted a request to FWP on management of FWP’s instream flow water rights and didn’t get the requested documents until March 4. After waiting six months, the Current got the help of Freedom of Information Hotline attorney Mike Meloy. FWP finally fulfilled the request a few weeks later.

Even Montana legislators have had trouble getting documents. The Helena Independent Record reported a month ago that agencies had delayed requests made by the Legislative Audit Committee.

“Recently, we’ve had increasing challenges in novel ways that agencies have either sought to deny our access or to delay the information requests that we are making,” Deborah Butler, legal counsel for the legislative auditor’s office, told the committee.

Not all requests take months. A Missoula Current request for hunter rosters submitted in October was answered within a few weeks.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.