- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 20, 2019

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A Montana legislator is resisting pressure from the leader of the Republican Party in his home county to resign over his past role as principal of a high school when an athletic trainer was accused of sexually abusing students.

Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, has refused to step down over the allegations that ex-trainer James Jensen abused students at Custer County District High School in Miles City while Anderson was principal in the 1990s.

“It has nothing to do with me as a legislator,” he told the Great Falls Tribune.

Anderson’s response to Cascade County Republican Central Committee chairwoman Sheridan Buck suggests her call for his resignation is politically motivated and part of a long-running feud between moderate and conservative committee members.

“I am disappointed by your letter and believe it is nothing more than an attempt to intimidate me and retaliate against me because I have been willing to work with members of the Republican Party to reform rules,” he wrote.

Jensen, 78, faces a federal coercion and enticement charge, a civil lawsuit by former students and state charges of possessing child pornography. The former students accuse him of performing nude massages and sexual acts on the boys as part of a program to enhance their strength and testosterone levels while he was the school’s trainer from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Time limits have expired for Jensen to be prosecuted on sexual abuse charges. He previously apologized for causing distress, but he denied the pending lawsuit’s more serious allegations.

Buck, the Cascade County GOP chairwoman, sent Anderson a letter on Jan. 4 calling for his resignation, saying the allegations of sexual misconduct under his watch as principal “create an atmosphere of remorse, moral outrage and disgust.”

She wrote that he is in a vulnerable position: “As this drags on through the court system, we fear you will become a central figure in the cover up of these misdeeds.”

Anderson said he reported complaints about Jensen to the superintendent of Custer County Schools in 1998 when he found out about them. He said he left it up to the superintendent to take further action.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” he wrote to Buck in response to her letter. “The situation in Miles City has caused real pain and that pain should not be used for your own political gain.”

Cascade County Republican conservatives and moderates are engaged in a long-running power struggle, and Anderson has been labeled by the conservative faction as a “Republican in name only” for some of his moderate positions on legislation.

The attention on Anderson comes as the Great Falls representative voted for a bill that passed the House this week that changes the rules for parties’ central committees like the one in Cascade County.

Proponents of the measure say it will prevent intra-party disputes, while opponents accuse state lawmakers of trying to meddle with local political organizations.

Buck called the bill retaliation against the Cascade County committee, and she told the Billings Gazette that Republicans who break party lines to vote for that bill “need to be put in their place.”

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