Ochenski: Lyin’ eyes 

In Martz’s latest scandal, someone is lying like a lap dog

The sudden resignations of Leo Giacometto and Betti Hill from the Martz administration were supposed to make the latest political scandal associated with Gov. Martz go away. Unfortunately, instead of calming the waters, as the governor no doubt fervently hoped, the actions and revelations of those concerned raise even more questions about serious improprieties at the highest levels. Sooner or later, those questions must be answered because someone here is lying.

Let’s start with Betti Hill, the wife of former Congressman Rick Hill, who worked for Gov. Martz as her “special projects director.” When revelations surfaced that the governor’s office was illegally using state phones to organize fundraisers for a political slush fund called the Montana Majority Fund, Martz acted surprised, said any such calls would be a violation of her office policy, and asked Barbara Ranf, former U.S. West lobbyist and now Martz’s chief of staff, to review phone records to find out who had used state phones to make long-distance calls associated with the Montana Majority Fund. Not surprisingly, Ranf’s investigation determined that none of Martz’s 467 calls were a problem, but that poor old Betti Hill had, indeed, made 108 long-distance calls that were associated with the Montana Majority Fund. Astoundingly, and without a credible explanation of how she reached her conclusion, Ranf also determined that none of the calls were used to solicit any of the $191,280 received by the slush fund.

When she was initially confronted with the issue, Betti told reporters and Ranf that she was just doing what she was instructed to do by either Shane Hedges, the governor’s former chief policy advisor, or Ed Bartlett, the governor’s former chief of staff. Governor Martz then issued a statement saying she had “been very clear with my staff regarding inappropriate use of state phones, and the policies of the office have at all times reflected that this is simply not acceptable conduct.” The governor followed up with a written reprimand to Hill for misusing the state phones and asked the Montana Majority Fund to repay the state the costs of the calls plus the time used by staff in making them.

Unfortunately, like so much about Gov. Martz, her words are at odds with both the record and her actions. According to Betti Hill’s resignation letter, which followed on the heels of the governor’s reprimand, the governor and her staff were fully aware of what was going on. “Throughout the process,” wrote Hill, “I made regular reports at senior staff meetings regarding the progress of those efforts. I openly worked with many members of the staff who were also cooperating in the effort, including regular and direct contact with the governor. At no time did anyone raise concerns about the appropriateness of this effort.” Obviously, either Betti Hill or Judy Martz is lying, since their versions of what happened are diametrically opposed. So whom should we believe? Betti, who tendered her resignation and left her $21-an-hour job, has exactly nothing to gain from lying about this. Simply put, she is gone from the governor’s office, spending her winter in California with husband Rick, and, quite frankly, they don’t need the job, the hassle, or the money.

On the other hand, Gov. Martz has a great deal to lose. Her governorship, by any reckoning, has been awash in scandals that have in some way or another involved the governor herself. When Shane Hedges killed Majority Leader Paul Sliter in a drunk driving accident coming back to Helena after a night of boozing it up at the Marysville House with Leo Giacommetto and several other top GOP insiders, it was Gov. Martz who went to the hospital and took Hedges to the governor’s mansion—even though he had been told by a highway patrolman to stay at the hospital. It was also Gov. Martz who decided to wash Hedge’s blood-stained clothes before they could be fully examined—“laundering the evidence,” as it were. If Gov. Martz acknowledged that she knew Betti Hill was using state phones to organize a political fundraiser, the governor would have to admit that she, too, was guilty. Instead, the governor decided to feign ignorance of the whole affair and dump the rap on Betti. But Betti didn’t take the fall, and now we are left to decide for ourselves who is telling the truth.

Betti Hill’s assertions that those in the gov’s office were fully aware of her actions have other serious implications. If, as Hill says, she gave regular reports at staff meetings, then it must be assumed that Ed Bartlett, the governor’s then chief of staff and legal counsel, must have known. To refresh your memory, Ed Bartlett is a former Montana Power Company lawyer and lobbyist who played an integral part in the state’s short-sighted leap into electricity deregulation, MPC’s divestiture of its utility holdings, and now sits as Martz’s appointee to the Northwest Power Planning Council. Yes, the very same guy who helped create our current electrical supply quandary is now pulling down $87,500 annually as Montana’s representative to a council that is supposed to balance hydroelectric production with the protection of our rivers, fish, and riparian wildlife. That’s bad enough, but as a lawyer and chief of staff, Bartlett had both an ethical and professional responsibility to follow the law and advise the governor on the use of state phones for political purposes. Although Bartlett denies it, Hill says he was fully aware of what she was doing on state phones, and may have actually assigned her to the duties. Obviously, they both can’t be telling the truth.

Someone is lying...that much is clear. It’s disgraceful that Montana’s governor and her administration are once again mired in controversy and scandal. But that’s the way it is. Sooner or later, we will root out the truth. And when that day comes, it seems like a few more resignations—and perhaps some prosecutions—may well be in order.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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