Group files lawsuit against legislator, seeking access to records

Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

A watchdog organization on Monday filed a lawsuit in District Court alleging that a Montana legislator violated the state constitution by failing to produce documents relating to her work on behalf of a special interest group in Utah that looks to place public lands under state control.

The Campaign for Accountability, based in Washington, D.C., filed its lawsuit in Lewis and Clark County District Court, asking to inspect all documents sent to or from Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, dating back to Jan. 1, 2013.

“Sen. Fielder has defied Montana government transparency laws, apparently to avoid revealing the extent of her activities with the American Lands Council,” said Daniel Stevens, director of the Campaign for Accountability. “We’ve sent her emails and letters, and we’ve tried to work with her to work this out, but it sounds like she’s dragging her feet.”

Fielder, who was elected to the state Legislature in 2012, assumed the role as chief executive officer with the American Lands Council in early 2016. Based in Utah, the group advocates turning public lands in the West over to state control.

Fielder took her position on the American Lands Council after Utah Rep. Ken Ivory resigned. The Campaign for Accountability had uncovered documents showing that he had misused his legislative email and other government resources to promote his organization’s agenda, resulting in an investigation by the Utah Attorney General.

The Campaign for Accountability alleges that Fielder has done the same.

“What we found in the case with Ivory was that he was using his personal email account and his legislative position to advocate for the American Lands Council,” said Stevens. “The reason we filed this request was to see if Fielder was using her legislative position to advocate for this nonprofit. She’s been very outspoken on this issue. It’s one of her big legislation priorities, so there must be some overlap there.”

According to the lawsuit, Fielder has not responded to multiple public records requests dating back to last March. The lawsuit also alleges that the Montana Legislative Services Division claimed that it was working to provide the documents.

Five months after the Campaign for Accountability filed its initial request for the documents, Susan Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division, said she’d forwarded them to Fielder to review.

Fielder responded, saying she would look at documents as she had the time. More than a year later, she has not provided the records, according to Stevens.

“Sen. Fielder’s refusal to abide by the state’s constitutional and open records laws suggests she has something to hide,” Stevens said. “Is she working to benefit people of Montana or herself as the CEO of this nonprofit? Montanan citizens deserve to know.

On Monday, Fox confirmed that she had sent the requested records to Fielder for review. She said they mostly pertained to Fielder’s email account.

“I wasn’t going to send them without her reviewing them,” Fox said. “I didn’t want to give up her right to privacy.”

Fielder didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com