Officials in the Crosshairs 

Is anti-government rhetoric ruining Montana politics?

If you’re a public official in Montana, it doesn’t take much to get a bounty put on your head.

Hamilton City Judge Marty Bethel got hers in 1995 after she tried a local common-law-court activist in a Darby courtroom for six traffic tickets. Shortly thereafter, she was notified by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Texas that a prison contingent of the Aryan Brotherhood had put a contract out for her murder. For most of 1995, her home and office were subjected to bomb threats, break-ins and anonymous phone calls warning that she would be “kidnapped, tried and hung in a public place.” Bethel and her family slept with the windows closed throughout the summer with a police radio, flashlight and rifle by her bed. Twice her children were sent away for weeks at a time when police believed her abduction was imminent.

For Kevin Keenan, a former state official who spent 26 years enforcing environmental laws for the Montana Department of Health and Environmental Sciences and later the Department of Environmental Quality, his “offense” was prosecuting a landowner in Gallatin County for bulldozing several hundred feet of shoreline along the Gallatin River. During a public gathering outside the Justice Department building in Helena, the accused landowner addressed a crowd via loudspeaker, saying, “Keenan should be dealt with in the best Montana tradition—hung by the neck until dead!”

For Bill Dakin, who served nine years on the Flathead County Planning Board, the threats and verbal harassment started when he began chairing a committee to draft a land-use plan. In no time, outrageous claims began circulating on local talk radio about United Nations conspiracies and plans by the Forest Service to take over all land in the Flathead Valley. Planning staff and their proponents were so verbally and physically threatened that, says Dakin, “I don’t think anybody who was on that board would ever voluntarily be on another government advisory board. It just wasn’t worth the stress.”

Stories like these are becoming commonplace among public officials, who increasingly are subjected to verbal and physical threats, intimidation and harassment against themselves and their families simply for doing the jobs they were hired to do. This according to Christine Kaufmann, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, who was in Missoula Monday with Bethel, Keenan and Dakin to speak about the rise in anti-government rhetoric that they say is becoming more common, and accepted, in political discourse.

“This is not just about federal employees,” says Kaufmann. “The shovel campaign, the failed rally in Libby, the rhetoric surrounding the federal roadless initiative and local land-use plans are all contributing to an atmosphere where government officials are being targeted for doing their job in the public arena.”

Compounding the problem, says Kaufmann, has been the response by some government agencies, and occasionally some members of law enforcement, who either downplay the significance of such threats or, as Keenan experienced at the DEQ, seem uninterested in documenting its occurrence.

“I consistently found the same response: You’re a public official and that’s part of the job,” says Keenan. “I said no, that wasn’t one of the things I agreed to, to take personal abuse and intimidation.”

Kaufmann used Monday’s press conference to attack Lt. Gov. Judy Martz for her support of the so-called “shovel brigade,” in which thousands of donated shovels were sent to Jarbidge, Nev., from several western states in an effort to defy a court order and illegally re-open a closed Forest Service road. Kaufmann says that supporters of the “Jarbidge Rebellion” have been using inflammatory, anti-government rhetoric to further a far-right agenda.

Martz, who was not at the press conference and claims she never received an invitation to meet with the Human Rights Network, says such attacks on her are both unfair and unjustified.

“That shovel thing was about one thing and one thing only: It was about protecting our citizens’ and our communities’ right to peacefully assemble and share their views,” says Martz, a Republican gubernatorial candidate. “And I don’t think that’s wrong in a democratic society. It’s not only our right to do it, it’s our responsibility to do it.”

Martz denies allegations that she uses anti-government language and says she is dismayed that the Human Rights Network would equate her activities with militia groups or the Montana Freemen. She does, however, admit that anti-government rhetoric is present in the political arena.

“I think it’s always been there,” says Martz. “What people are seeing is their jobs taken away, they’re seeing opportunities for their families disappearing and we’re all feeling the frustration more than ever before.”

“I don’t think the Human Rights Network is a credible group,” adds University of Montana law professor and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Natelson. “I think they engage in a left-wing variation of McCarthyism. Their leadership is poor and their sympathies are very one-sided. They need to show more sympathy for the people who are having their livelihood destroyed by federal actions.”

But Kaufmann warns against the message Montana is sending to the federal government and the rest of the nation by what she calls “the aura of wackiness around these debates.

“We’re going to hold rallies and burn flags and bash up Forest Service vehicles and invite white supremacists to come,” says Kaufmann. “What does that tell the federal government about how we want to participate in the democratic process?”

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