Montanans can thank last week’s decision by District Judge Dirk Sandefur for removing three bogus initiatives from the November ballot. The effort to qualify the measures was run by a shady organization named Montanans in Action that refused to identify where it got the more than $800,000 it spent on the effort. But it appears that neither the money, nor the signature gatherers it paid, came from Montana. While the court ruling makes fascinating reading, it’s just the beginning. What is obvious is that we must now change our initiative process to make sure such a bought-and-paid-for road show never happens here again.
The court decision, while welcome, came as a surprise to many who considered the effort to overturn the initiatives an uphill battle. After all, Montanans have resorted to our dearly held citizen initiative process for years when gridlocked legislatures or visionless leaders left them little choice but to determine pressing issues.
For example, thanks to former governors Marc Racicot and Judy Martz—and a decade of Republican-dominated legislatures—citizens were forced to use the initiative process to protect themselves from game farms and to ban new cyanide heap-leach gold mining. As the recent escape of elk from an Idaho game farm on the border of Yellowstone National Park proved, the game farm industry is simply incapable of protecting the public’s treasured wildlife from its deadly panoply of diseases and unacceptably altered gene pool. While Idaho declares “open season” on the runaway elk, Montanans, thanks to the initiative process, don’t have to worry about that happening here.
As for cyanide heap-leach gold mining, once again, thanks entirely to the citizen initiative process, Montanans protected themselves from predation by largely out-of-state, out-of-nation mining corporations with little environmental consciousness and even less environmental conscience. No need to go into great detail on this topic, since the state is liberally dotted with the remains of mines that will leach toxins into our water and air in perpetuity. As with the game farms, the grim reality left behind by the cyanide mining process speaks far louder than words. But again, thanks to the citizen initiative process, this is one worry future Montanans will hopefully not have to face.
This year, however, Montanans got to experience some serious tinkering with our initiative process that will require changes in the law to make sure the initiatives Montanans are asked to vote on are just that—Montanan.
First, let’s look at the grossly misnamed “Montanans in Action.” As revealed in court documents, most of the paid signature gatherers for CI-97, CI-98 and I-154 were not Montanans—they were out-of-state hired guns who had, in fact, been working similar initiative petitions in other states. Moreover, although it has yet to be admitted, many suspect the funding for this whole spurious process came from a New York real estate developer named Howard Rich. The suspicions are strong enough that Gov. Brian Schweitzer sent Mr. Rich a letter asking him to come to Montana, the state whose constitution Rich wanted so badly to change, and debate the issue publicly—an offer Mr. Rich quickly declined.
Out-of-state funders will be addressed later, but at a minimum those who gather signatures in Montana should be subject to a Montana residency requirement. If you’re going to try to change the law or constitution in Montana, it’s only fair that you at least live here. Fully 43 of the out-of-state scammers hired by Montanans in Action used a series of bogus Montana addresses. According to the court, once they cash the checks for the signatures they gathered, they “then immediately move on to the next state without leaving a trace” so no one can challenge or subpoena them after the fact.
One of the reasons they split the state so quickly is probably because they used a variety of bogus come-ons to get Montanans to sign their petitions. As witnesses testified last week, the most common falsehood perpetrated was to tell petition signers that they had to sign three copies of the same initiative when, in fact, they were signing three different initiatives. In at least one example, in Missoula, the court noted “an out of state signature gatherer, upon being challenged by a private business upon whose property he was soliciting signatures without permission, concealed his identity and misrepresented that he was gathering signatures for the Montana Attorney General who he also alleged was promoting the Ballot Initiatives.”
Another critical but necessary change in law should require that those who actually gather the signatures sign the certification affidavits. Currently, the law requires only that those who sign the affidavits either gathered the signatures or “assisted in” gathering them. The defense used the “assisted in” excuse last week to try to beat the rap, but the judge saw through it and issued a scathing rebuke in his ruling, noting “…there is evidence that the small number of out of state signature gatherers who certified the majority of the signatures gave false affidavits that they gathered or assisted in gathering signatures when they did not.”
And finally, getting back to out-of-state funders, it seems to make sense that we require full financial disclosure for initiatives. While many citizen initiatives in the past have been strictly volunteer-based efforts, the “paid-by-the-signature” scam perpetrated by Montanans in Action and their mysterious funder has shown the danger of big, out-of-state money literally buying the process. If it’s going on the ballot in front of Montanans, it ought to abide by our constitutional provisions for open and transparent government and provide full financial disclosure.
These are all changes that can easily be accomplished in the upcoming Legislature, where open debate can and should air any reasonable objections for all Montanans to consider. Last week’s court ruling ensures this year’s bogus initiatives are toast—but to ensure the validity of future initiative efforts, the work has just begun.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.