Last week’s altercation between Sen. Conrad Burns and the Augusta Hotshot crew has been extensively covered already. In short, Burns threatened, berated, and insulted the tired firefighters while they were waiting for their flight out of the Billings airport. Burns’ trail is littered with ignorant blurbs, but what may be far more important than his blunders in the long run are the actions by employees of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) who, on their own, decided to sanitize the Senator’s most egregious comments in their final report.
Unlike Conrad Burns, those of us who have donned hard hats and yellow fire shirts to cut line with a Pulaski for 16 hours at a time in searing heat and smoke while being blasted with aerial retardant would never think of accusing fellow firefighters of not doing “a God-damned thing.” Burns should have kept his gob shut or simply told the firefighters “thanks.” But he didn’t—and is now being righteously ripped across the nation by an outraged populace and press.
Then again, this is the same senator who called Arabs “ragheads,” told a single-mother flight attendent that she should be home taking care of her kids, and then publicly declared he wanted to get “knee-walking drunk.” It’s also the same senator who took more money than any other member of Congress from corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff and, in turn, voted for Abramoff’s clients. Suffice it to say that thanks in large part to his own actions, come the November elections we’ll see a final end to Burns embarrassing Montanans on a national level.
What is of significantly greater concern for open government is the apparent self-censorship by the DNRC employees who took comments from Burns and the Hot Shots following the incident. Were it not for some good work by Chuck Johnson, Lee Newspapers’ veteran Capitol Bureau chief, in obtaining a copy of the original incident report, the media, the public and the decisionmakers would never have known the truth of Burns’ transgressions—because they were omitted from the final report released to the media. And therein lies the rub.
We deserve the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from people on the public payroll. It is not their job—not by law, rule, or convention—to determine what part of the truth should be released or what should be left unsaid. Yet that is exactly what happened in the Burns incident. As reported by Johnson: “Most of Burns’ highly critical comments, made to state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation employee Paula Rosenthal, were omitted from the version of her report released to reporters Wednesday and Thursday.”
In the original incident report, Rosenthal wrote that Burns pointed to a member of the firefighting crew across the airport lobby and told her: “See that guy over there? He hasn’t done a God-damned thing. They sit around. I saw it up on the Wedge fire and in northwestern Montana some years ago. It’s wasteful. You probably paid that guy $10,000 to sit around. It’s gotta change.”
Instead of reporting it as Burns said it, Rosenthal told Johnson that she had discussed Burns’ remarks with State Forester Bob Harrington and decided to delete Burns’ quote from her final report. “It’s an inflammatory remark,” Rosenthal told Johnson, adding: “I thought the remark was captured in other comments. It had nothing to do with any politics…There was no coercion or pressure from anybody [to delete it].” She went on to say the report was an internal management tool and “not fodder for the press.” Ironically, Rosenthal claims she “wanted to present accurate information, including [Burns’] concerns and examples, so they could respond. I thought it was going to be a productive working document for the management.”
If you’re puzzled why someone would think editing Burns’ “inflammatory comments” out of a report released by a government agency to the media would produce “accurate information,” you’re not alone. Unfortunately, while this may be the latest example of such creative editing, it is not without precedent.
Those with good memories may recall a little incident back in the Racicot administration, in which former Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Communications Manager Cathy Siegner resigned from the agency after sending a letter to Director Mark Simonich in which she called the agency’s top officials “spin doctors” and “truth-twisters.” Siegner, who now publishes Helena’s Queen City News, said her conscience wouldn’t allow her to continue to work for DEQ, adding: “I will not stand by on the state payroll and watch you stretch the truth in order to further some agenda that is neither publicly discussed or collectively supported.”
More recently, it can certainly be argued that similar editing of official reports by government employees was responsible for the decision by Congress to give President Bush the authority to wage war in Iraq. In that case, contradictory evidence concerning the Bush administration’s claims that Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction and were obtaining yellow-cake nuclear material were simply omitted from official reports. The horrific consequences of that little piece of editing continue to this day and are likely to extend far into the future.
So what can be done? Well, at the federal level, probably nothing. This administration is one of the most corrupt ever and will be especially noted for its inability to tell the truth.
But at the state level it’s a different story. If Gov. Schweitzer is serious about his “New Day in Montana,” it is incumbent upon him to tell employees in all state agencies that good decisions can only be based on good facts—and that no employee has the right to edit comments from a report just because they consider them “inflammatory.” There are simply far too many possible religious, political and personal biases scattered throughout the ranks of state employees to allow such editing—however inconvenient the truth may be.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.