Ochenski: What conflict of interest? 

GOP attacks on Treweiler unconscionable

Last week’s GOP attack on Terry Treweiler, a former Montana Supreme Court justice recently elected to the board of directors for the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), shows just how low the Republican Party has fallen. Instead of coming forward with new, workable ideas to dig the state out of the hole into which the “leadership” of Stephens, Racicot, Martz and 10 years of Republican-dominated legislatures have plunged us, the GOP chose to target Treweiler with a “conflict of interest” charge. When it comes to conflict of interest, the Repubs are experts—and they have no business pointing their fingers anywhere but in the mirror.

Treweiler was a successful Whitefish trial lawyer prior to his 1991 election to Montana’s Supreme Court. Driven by a desire to return to private practice, he resigned from the Court in April. By any measure, Treweiler is broadly held to be one of the state’s outstanding legal scholars, and certainly one of the most prolific justices ever to don the black robes of the Supreme Court.

Throughout his long career, Treweiler has championed “the little people” in a stunning variety of legal issues. That, in and of itself, is generally enough to earn the wrath of corporate-toadying Republicans. But it is Treweiler’s stongly-worded opinion that breathed life and definition into the Montana Constitution’s guarantee of a “clean and healthful environment” that puts him in the woefully misaligned crosshairs of the GOP.

Chuck Denowh, the new executive director of the Republican Party, launched his party’s diatribe against Treweiler in an e-mail to the Repub faithful last week, dubbing Treweiler “a leader in the enviro-activist crusade (read obstructionist)” and saying “It’s no secret that Treweiler was of that persuasion—extreme environmentalism.” He also claimed Treweiler’s new board position “seems like a conflict of interest.” Mr. Denowh should read the Montana Constitution before attacking a noteworthy individual who has bravely upheld its provisions and promises. A short review of the actions by recent top-level Republican politicians might also inform Mr. Denowh on just what “conflict of interest” really means.

While it is easy to understand the GOP’s frustrations with Treweiler’s landmark legal opinion on behalf of the Supreme Court, the claims of “conflict of interest” seem baseless. Since stepping down from the Court this spring, Treweiler is no longer an elected official. He has rejoined that most Holy of Republican Holies, the private sector, setting aside the robes of a justice and once again donning the suits and ties of a trial lawyer.

Given his level of experience and respect among members of the legal profession, Treweiler would have been welcomed with open arms by virtually any law firm in the state—or he could have simply gone back to running his own firm as he did prior to his service on the Court. He chose to partner with Mike Meloy, an equally talented and respected Helena trial lawyer who, like Treweiler, has championed the rights and promises the Montana Constitution guarantees to all of us, including the right to a clean and healthful environment, free speech, and, notably, the right of the press and the people to know what’s going on when their own government decides to exclude them from the closed-door decision-making which has been a trademark of recent Repub leaders.

The Meloy firm has represented MEIC many times in its long and difficult legal battles over environmental issues. Treweiler’s association with the environmental group, however, other than writing the Court’s “clean and healthful” ruling on the lawsuit brought by MEIC, has been virtually non-existent. After resigning from the Court, Treweiler received MEIC’s “Conservationist of the Year” award this summer, and was asked to run for the board. As Jim Jensen, the executive director of MEIC said, “He’s an extraordinary lawyer whose knowledge of social policy, including environmental policy, is deep and broad. I think he will be an extremely valuable mentor to the board and staff.”

Jensen’s right. Just as any law firm would have been extremely lucky to add Treweiler to its roster of attorneys, any board would be fortunate to receive advice from an individual with Treweiler’s understanding of case and Constitutional law. It is not a conflict of interest, but rather a logical collusion of interests, for a respected ex-Supreme Court justice to partner with another respected and capable attorney with similar principles and experience. Nor is Treweiler’s election to the volunteer, public-interest board of a group fighting to enforce the Constitutional protections of Montana’s environment in any imaginable way a conflict of interest.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Republican officials. Former Gov. Racicot, for instance, after stuffing Montana’s electricity deregulation bill through the Legislature, went to work for a D.C. law firm representing Enron, the Big Daddy of deregulation, cooked books and corporate chicanery. Unlike Treweiler’s unpaid position on MEIC’s board, Racicot’s after-office trip through the corporate revolving door brought six-figure rewards for his part in plunging Montana into our deregulation morass.

Or how about Gov. Martz’ controversial land purchase from ARCO? Isn’t there a conflict of interest in having a sitting governor purchase land from the state’s largest polluter when she sits in judgment of their Superfund cleanup?

Or John Harp, the Kalispell Republican who railroaded the 1997 dereg legislation through the Senate from his position as Majority Leader. After deregulation enabled the Montana Power Company to sell off its energy assets, it was Harp’s construction company that landed the huge contract to lay Touch America’s fiber optic cables across Montana.

Treweiler, like each of those Republicans, took an oath to uphold Montana’s Constitution when he took office. Unlike those Repubs, Treweilers’ judicial rulings really did uphold our Constitutional rights to free speech, open government, social justice and a clean and healthful environment. He deserves our thanks for honoring his oath of office—not the baseless, insulting attacks of the Greedy Obsolete Party.

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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