Gov. Marc Racicot absolved Department of Environmental Quality administrators last week of charges that they spin the news and withhold information from the press and public. Critics, however, say questions remain.
Racicot announced Thursday, following a two-month investigation, that he found no basis for the allegations leveled against the state agency. The matter, he told members of a legislative oversight council, is closed.
But the Environmental Quality Council -- a 16-member group comprised of legislators and citizens, which oversees the administration of environmental laws -- isn't willing to let the issue drop.
After hearing from both Racicot and DEQ Director Mark Simonich, the group voted unanimously to ask the legislative auditor to look into some of the accusations.
The wheels of inquiry were originally set in motion last November, when the DEQ's communications manager, Cathy Siegner, resigned from her post with a strongly-worded letter accusing her bosses of twisting the truth to serve an agenda other than the public good. Within days, Racicot embarked upon an investigation of the charges.
In the end, he says, he spent 50 hours interviewing 21 people and compiling his conclusions into a 12-page report, which states:
"I have confidently drawn the following conclusions:
"The evidence does not establish instances of 'spin-doctoring,' 'truth-twisting,' or efforts to 'circumvent public scrutiny' by either Director Simonich or Deputy Director [Curt] Chisholm, as alleged by Ms. Siegner;
"The evidence does not establish instances of impropriety on the part of either Director Simonich or Deputy Director Chisholm; and
"The allegations presented by Ms. Siegner are based upon a combination of erroneous hearsay, misinformation, inaccurate speculation, and differences of opinion that do not establish wrongdoing by either Director Simonich or Deputy director Chisholm."
Point by point, Racicot refutes Siegner's allegations, which were detailed in a six-page memo following up her resignation letter. In only one instance, Racicot writes, did he find someone who backed up Siegner's version of the facts.
Reporter Mike Dennison, of the Great Falls Tribune, told Racicot that "Deputy Director Chisholm appeared to be more interested in knowing how [Dennison] found things out rather than answering the questions," the governor writes. But, he continues, "[t]hat does not establish an effort to circumvent public scrutiny."
Members of the council say they are not so sure things are going well over at the DEQ. House Minority Leader Vicki Cocchiarella (D-Missoula), who co-chairs the council, says Racicot's presentation left her with unanswered questions.
"I was quite shocked at his adamancy that there is no standing to the allegations," Cocchiarella says. "I was surprised at his 110 percent support of his department heads. It's kind of unlike Marc Racicot to be so hard core about a decision.
"[Racicot] surprised me because he was so forceful in making sure that Cathy Siegner got no credit for having some information. I don't believe anybody would do what she did, having nothing to gain, unless there was something going on."
Cocchiarella's co-chair, Sen. Ken Mesaros (R-Cascade), was less suspicious of the governor's investigation. He points out that the legislative auditor was already planning to take a look at the DEQ's permitting division this spring.
"I thought [Racicot's] presentation was very thorough," Mesaros says. "But as long as the legislative auditor is scheduled to conduct an audit, we ought to request that he investigate a few more items above what he's scheduled to do.
"That way, we get a glimpse of what's going on, to see if we can identify any problems."
Montana's Legislative Auditor Scott Seacat says his office was asked by the Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee during last year's legislative session to do an audit of the DEQ's permitting division. "Their concerns were not related," he says. "They were looking at the effectiveness and efficiency of the state's permitting for air, water and those types of processes.
"In conjunction with that audit," Seacat adds, "the [council] has asked us to take a look at a couple things -- whether there appears to be excessive turnover, and if so, why; whether there have been material instances of noncompliance with state law; open meetings, public access to information, whether the filing system is easily navigable. These are related to [Siegner's] allegations."
Siegner, for her part, says she was not surprised by the governor's report, but is glad that the matter has not been dropped. "It does depend on where they take [the audit]. If they assure confidentiality and anonymity, and then asked questions like 'Have you been looking for work outside the DEQ, and if so why?' I think they'll receive some interesting answers."
According to Racicot's spokesperson Rorie Hanrahan, the governor still considers the matter closed. DEQ Director Simonich did not return numerous phone messages left by the Independent.