Richard Kimball, president of the nonprofit voter education outfit Project Vote Smart, told the Associated Press earlier this month that the Philipsburg-based organization was planning to expand its operations at the University of Arizona in Tucson rather than in Montana.
Kimball told the AP he’d approached the University of Montana “a few years ago” about a partnership that would have moved the project to the UM campus, but said UM officials expressed no interest and “got kind of nasty.”
But in an interview with the Independent Monday, Kimball backed off that statement. He now says he met with UM officials in the late 1990s and that they were “very positive” about the prospect of hosting the project, which at the time was part of the Center for National Independence in Politics at Oregon State University.
“I had pushed very hard for moving the center from Oregon State to Montana,” Kimball says. “Then the University of Montana never came through. They never returned my phone calls.”
Kimball says he was promised a letter from university officials indicating their interest in the project, but that the letter never came. So the project’s board abandoned plans for a partnership and opted instead to build a campus in Philipsburg, where they opened operations in 1999.
Jim Foley, UM’s executive vice president, says he doesn’t know what transpired during those past discussions, but says he’d like to reexamine the possibility of a partnership.
“I think it was some miscommunication,” Foley says of previous negotiations. “We want to put together a meeting to see if a partnership is still possible.”
Foley says he’s talked to Evan Barrett, the governor’s economic development officer, and together they’re trying to arrange a meeting with Kimball.
But Kimball says he hasn’t heard from either the state or UM, and that the time for talking is just about up.
“I’m open to visiting with them, but nobody has contacted me,” Kimball said Monday. “I don’t know if they’re saying that for PR reasons or what.”
However, Kimball quickly backed off that statement as well when informed that Foley had tried to contact him Monday. Kimball confirmed getting a message from Foley, but said he didn’t know Foley was a UM official.
Project Vote Smart’s dealings with UM, or lack thereof, seem to fit a pattern in which Kimball often finds himself at the center of miscommunications.
This spring Kimball wrote a letter to library directors around the country advising them that they would not be receiving Project Vote Smart’s publications this year because, Kimball wrote, he never received a letter from the American Library Association’s president endorsing the project.
Michael Gorman was the ALA’s president at the time. He told the Independent last week he had never even heard of Project Vote Smart until he started receiving angry letters from ALA members demanding an explanation for his refusal to endorse the project.
“I never even saw a request,” Gorman contends.
In a heated e-mail exchange with ALA members that was posted on an ALA Internet message board, Gorman wrote that Kimball and Project Vote Smart “gratuitously smeared me to many professional colleagues without the courtesy of a phone call, e-mail message, letter…or, thusfar [sic], an apology.”
Kimball claims he has extensive records proving numerous such requests were made, but Gorman insists the fray wasn’t a matter of miscommunication. Executive members of the ALA confirm that Gorman never received a request for an endorsement from Project Vote Smart.
“I don’t call flat-out lying miscommunication,” Gorman says.
Kimball’s penchant for miscommunication, if not lying, is well known in Philipsburg as well.
In May 2003 Kimball wrote a letter to Granite County Justice of the Peace Sam Brown in which he threatened to pull the project out of Philipsburg if Brown put one of Kimball’s interns in jail for refusing to pay a fine for a fishing violation. The three-page letter—written on Project Vote Smart stationary and containing the names of the group’s founding board members (including George McGovern, Barry Goldwater and Newt Gingrich, to name a few)—outlined a laundry list of complaints about the treatment Kimball claimed he and his organization had received in the community.
Near the end, Kimball gave Brown this ultimatum: “You put one of my students in jail for the reasons you suggest and my board will instantly pull the plug here.”
Kimball sent copies of the letter to five prominent Philipsburg business owners.
“The letter was trying to make me look bad,” says Brown, who in turn forwarded the letter to all 40 founding members listed on the letterhead.
Kimball is also at the center of a pending legal action by the state stemming from an incident in which he was called to serve on a jury in Brown’s court. According to Brown’s sworn affidavit, Kimball told the court he was not a resident of Montana during jury selection and was thus dismissed from jury duty. But Brown knew that Kimball had a Montana resident fishing license.
“There’s either a case of perjury, or two counts of falsifying information to buy a resident fishing license,” says Brown. “Either way you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
Kimball contends he never asked to be excused from the jury, but declined to comment further on the case, other than to say that he’s obtained legal council.
Meanwhile, Kimball acknowledges that he’s often at the center of controversy, but says that shouldn’t detract from the work Project Vote Smart does.
“If this is going to be a negative story, it should be about me, not about the project,” Kimball says. “If whatever you’re hearing about me personally is reflected on the project, that’s completely unfair. The project has been nothing but positive.”
Kimball said at press time he was scheduled to meet with Project Vote Smart’s executive committee July 19 to review the University of Arizona’s partnership offer, which he characterizes as “an annex to the [Philipsburg] campus.” He says no deal has been finalized, and he’s adamant that an expansion of the project in Arizona wouldn’t mean the end of its Montana operations.
“We’d be perfectly happy to talk to the University of Montana,” he says. “We just never knew they were interested.”