The fear factor 

Helena reacts to “The Walter Ego”

Last week’s Independent cover story by John S. Adams, “The Walter Ego,” has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the state’s political circles. In the article, Adams relates his attempts to find out just how Gov. Schweitzer’s brother Walter has been influencing the formulation of state policy from his rather ill-defined, but definitely high-level, position of power in the governor’s office. On the surface, only a scant few individuals were willing to go on the record to be quoted for the story. But off the record, in e-mails and blogs, a considerably larger mass have tales to tell—tales they won’t tell in public, however, because of fear that if they do, they will pay harshly for crossing the governor.

For those who may have missed it, Adams’ story basically asks two questions: Who is Walter Schweitzer and what does he do? The obvious answers are that Walter is the governor’s brother and he is somehow helping his brother govern the state of Montana. But where the tale gets interesting is in the questions raised by politicos on both sides of the aisle who have had dealings with Walter.

For instance, Bob Keenan, a Republican state senator from Big Fork, turned over some 500 pages of e-mails sent by Walter from a state computer during the last legislative session. Because Adams cited the e-mails in his article, some have accused him—and the Independent—of being in cahoots with Republicans to trash the Schweitzer administration. To be sure, Keenan was the leading critic of Schweitzer during the last Legislature, but for the most part whatever message he may have had for Montanans was lost in his shrill, almost desperate delivery. The e-mails Walter sent from the state computer, however, were real enough, and raised credible questions about possible violations of Montana’s nepotism laws, which are intended to ensure that relatives of elected officials are not rewarded either with cherry positions on the state payroll or undue influence on state policy by virtue of their blood relation to elected officials. The issue was serious enough that Walter’s use of both a state office and state computer were halted.

Counterbalancing Bob Keenan’s role in the story was a series of quotes from Public Service Commissioner Bob Raney, a Vietnam veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star, has been a dedicated hard-core Democrat, represented his home town of Livingston for 16 years in the Legislature, and personally raised thousands of dollars in the Paradise Valley for Schweitzer’s campaign. Obviously, if Adams or the Independent were shilling for the Republicans, it is impossible that such a dedicated and honorable Democrat as Raney would have had anything to do with it.

The same scenario plays out in the story between Alan Olson, a Republican state representative from Roundup, and Anne Hedges, who works for one of the state’s longest-standing environmental groups, the Montana Environmental Information Center. While Olson has been one of the Legislature’s most vocal and enthusiastic supporters of massive coal development, Hedges has battled and continues to do battle over any proposal to turn the state into an energy colony for the nation. It’s fair to say that Olson and Hedges are on totally opposite sides of the energy debate, and any suggestion that they could possibly be colluding to discredit the Schweitzer administration is ludicrous.

Then there’s the deafening silence from the mainstream press. So far, not a single Montana political reporter or paper has touched the story, even though anyone who frequents the halls of the capitol will freely admit that those reporters have known about Walter’s actions for a long time, and have been contacted by numerous knowledgeable individuals from industry, public interest groups, and both sides of the political aisle. But like so many of those Adams talked to for his story, no one wants to go “on the record” for fear of retribution from the governor’s office. Hence the mainstream’s silence on the issue continues unabated.

So far, the closest thing to a mainstream news discussion of the role, the authority and the funding of Walter Schweitzer’s actions in the capital have come from Ed Kemmick’s City Lights blog, which is affiliated with the Billings Gazette. If you go to the posting, at http://www.billingsgazette.net/ h/blogs/citylights/?p=1799, you’ll find half a hundred comments reflecting the wide variety of opinions about just what is going on with Walter and how it relates to the function of open government that Montanans both expect and are guaranteed in our Constitution. The commentators run the gamut from those who claim to have lost their job because they clashed with Walter to those calling for full and open disclosure by the administration to those convinced that the story must be some kind of a pre-election “hatchet job” by the Indy. But given that neither Walter nor Brian Schweitzer are up for election, it’s tough to see how an article questioning Walter’s role can be construed to have much to do with the upcoming election.

Personally, I’ve never had any dealings with Walter Schweitzer other than a casual chat when he was picking up some kegs at the local brewery for a political fundraiser one day. That said, there is no question that he is ubiquitous in the capitol and his actions have filled the halls with whispers from the widest possible spectrum of people directly involved in the formulation of Montana’s policies. The key word here is “whispers,” however, since those who do business with the governor are loathe to rile him or dim their chances of success in the policy arena by openly questioning Walter’s role.

If anything is evident from Adams’ story, the blog comments, and the e-mails flying around the capital that the public will never see, it is the need for, at a minimum, full disclosure and clarification of Walter’s role. Without that, the climate of fear that permeates the issue will continue—and Montanans deserve better than to be afraid of their own government.

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 opinion@missoulanews.com.

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