Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks complied with state ethics laws after a state-owned educational trailer was used by a private group during a political campaign, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed earlier this week.
In 2014, Trap Free Montana Public Lands filed a complaint with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices alleging that FWP had violated ethics laws when it allowed the Montana Trappers Association to use a furbearer educational trailer bearing the FWP logo. Trap Free, which was bringing a ballot initiative to prohibit most trapping on public lands, contended that MTA had used the trailer for political purposes in opposition to the initiative and FWP was responsible.
MTA members, who were also part of a committee opposing the initiative, had used the trailer at public events while also displaying opposition materials, according to court documents.
A COPP hearing examiner ruled in favor of Trap Free, finding that FWP was in violation for three occasions when MTA used the trailer. FWP was fined $1,500.
FWP petitioned the district court for review of the finding. The agency argued that state law is limited to prohibiting public employees from using public resources for political advocacy. In 2017, the district court reversed COPP’s decision, saying in part that COPP had “improperly exercised legislative power constitutionally reserved to the Montana Legislature.”
Trap Free appealed that decision to the Montana Supreme Court, which on May 15 upheld the decision. The opinion, written by Justice Beth Baker and concurred by four other justices, notes that FWP became aware of the potential political use of the trailer and contacted the MTA to advise them that such use was unauthorized.
“Nothing in the record supports — and the Hearing Examiner did not find — that any FWP employee through his or her actions or inactions authorized or colluded with MTA to allow MTA to use FWP property for political advocacy, intended to allow MTA to use FWP property for political advocacy, or even knew that MTA would use FWP property for political advocacy,” the opinion says.
“We feel like we responded appropriately and did what we should have done when we were notified what was going on,” said FWP administrator Greg Lemon.
FWP now requires those using its educational and other materials to sign a form agreeing not to use state resources for political purposes.
“We want to make sure people understand those limitations on our equipment and we believe we’ve got the proper safeguards in place,” Lemon said.
K.C. York with Trap Free believes the decision leaves a loophole in Montana’s ethics laws by absolving state employees from responsibility for private use of state resources.
“FWP were the gate keepers of these public resources,” she said. “This was more than using a state copier, this was, in our opinion, strategically planned by the trappers to convey a message to the public that FWP opposed the initiative.”
MTA president Jim Buell had not yet read the decision but was familiar with the circumstances of the case.
“It went through the legal system and the correct decision was made,” he said.
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin