- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 25, 2018

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana lawmakers began an investigation Wednesday into confidential settlements with terminated state workers over the protests of Democrats who said the new Republican-led committee lacks legitimacy and appears to be politically motivated against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

Only one of the four Democrats appointed to the new Special Select Committee on State Settlement Accountability participated in the panel’s initial meeting, and Rep. Brad Hamlett, D-Cascade, said his aim was “to keep tabs on the Republicans.”

The Republican leaders who control the state House and Senate formed the committee last month to look into millions of dollars paid in confidential legal settlements.

The panel was formed with Republican leaders asserting that settlements have spiked since Bullock took office in 2013, citing data from the Legislative Audit Division that the governor’s office said was misleading.

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso and House Minority Leader Jenny Eck recommended that Democrats don’t participate in the initial meeting because the committee’s aim could simply be to make Bullock look bad.

“I’m concerned that might be where it is headed,” Eck said Wednesday before the meeting. “It just doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Republican leaders appointed six Republican and four Democratic lawmakers to the panel, even though party representation on interim committees is typically evenly split.

A stacked committee with political overtones is unnecessary when the Legislative Audit Division is already planning an audit this year of employee termination settlement agreements, Democratic leaders said.

“It’s not that we don’t care about the issue, it’s that we care about the process,” Sesso said.

Rep. Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton, denied the committee is politically motivated and said he would reach out to the minority party to encourage their participation.

The committee agreed Wednesday to start gathering what information they could about employee settlements dating back to 2003 - settlement amounts, the government departments they came from and employee positions, for example - to determine whether a problem exists.

“Let’s get all the information we can up to the point where we might be questioned about confidentiality,” said state Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell.

The committee’s future beyond Wednesday’s meeting depends on funding, which may not be approved. There are six Democrats and six Republicans on the Legislative Council, which will decide whether to fund future meetings from a special account.

Alternatively, the committee will look at using other spending accounts controlled by legislative leaders and possibly individual legislators’ constituency accounts used for lawmakers’ travel and constituent work within their districts, Ehli said.

One of the four Democratic lawmakers appointed to the committee, Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said she decided on her own to boycott the panel. She called it a terrible use of taxpayer money following state budget cuts that slashed health care services for people in need.

“If we’re going to spend one dime, it should be to restore services to people who really need it, not on this witch hunt,” Caferro said.

The other two Democrats on the panel, Sen. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, and Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, both skipped the meeting.

When they announced the committee last month, House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, and Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, cited a Legislative Audit Division memo that found Montana had paid nearly $3 million in employee settlements during Bullock’s term between 2013 and 2017.

The governor’s office has said that legislative auditors wrongly concluded that settlement payments increased after Bullock took office. The auditors cited data from a new account created to consolidate payments that previously had been made across state government, Bullock budget director Dan Villa said at the time.

The data the auditor’s office looked at also includes all kinds of settlement payments, not just employee settlements, according to the governor’s office.

On Wednesday, Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel called the new panel a political stunt.

The panel “is improperly constituted, a waste of taxpayer dollars and designed to score the same cheap political points that voters declined to give these legislators in the 2016 election.” Abel said.

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