Republican legislative leaders set up a committee Friday to investigate confidential settlements paid out to public employees under the administration of Governor Steve Bullock.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas says he wants to learn more about data provided to him by the state audit division showing an increase in settlements paid out since 2013.
The audit report, completed at the request of Thomas, found that upwards of $3 million has been paid out in state employee settlements between 2013 and 2017.
"This is just a matter that we should — public money, public information — we need to put a stop to these private settlements. And we need to find out what’s been going on," Thomas says. "And there may not being anything we would find as wrong. I don't know, we’ll just find out."
The Select Committee on State Settlement Accountability is comprised of six Republicans and four Democrats.
According a press release from majority party staff, Republican Senator Nels Swandal, a former district judge, will chair the committee.
Dan Villa is Governor Steve Bullock's budget director. Villa says the audit report, showing a jump in state settlements in recent years, isn’t an accurate representation of the state’s spending on employee settlements.
"We will do everything we can do to cooperate while still protecting the rights of individual Montanans to privacy, when necessary," Villa says.
"The spike from 2013 forward is where the governor implemented mandatory accounting practices across the state. Prior to that, the account didn’t even exist. So clearly you can see the bias in the audit, that it wouldn’t even disclose that that account didn't exist prior to the date that shows the spike," says Villa.
The audit report says in order to get a better picture of state settlement data, a full performance audit would have to be completed. State audit division staff say plans for that kind of analysis are underway.
The first meeting of the state settlement accountability committee has not been announced.
Several legislators listed as members of the committee, both Republican and Democrat, told MTPR Friday they were not aware of the existence of this committee before MTPR contacted them seeking comment.