Montana FWP Appeals Ethics Ruling Over Trapping Initiative
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's fish and wildlife agency is appealing a ruling that it violated the state's ethics laws by allowing equipment it owns to be used to advocate against a ballot initiative.
In November, Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl fined Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks $1,500 after finding the Montana Trappers Association used an FWP trailer and state-owned displays of furbearing animals to oppose the 2014 anti-trapping initiative. The measure never made it on the ballot, but was revived in 2016 and rejected by Montana voters.
FWP appealed the ethics law decision to a state judge in a petition filed on Dec. 22. In it, agency attorney Zach Zipfel says Motl overstepped his authority and that the commissioner's ruling imposes requirements on public employees that don't exist in the state's ethics code.
"It is not the role of the (commissioner) to impose additional duties on state agencies that the Legislature chose not to impose," Zipfel wrote.
The agency is asking the judge to strike down Motl's ruling and to dismiss the original ethics complaint filed by Trap Free Montana Public Lands.
FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim declined to comment on the petition.
KC York of Trap Free Montana Public Lands said in a statement Tuesday that the advocacy organization is disappointed that FWP is devoting its time and resources to appealing Motl's decision instead of correcting its own actions.
"As a state agency, it is required to adhere to laws enacted to curtail political corruption to ensure that the agency works in the interests of the public trust and that it does not improperly influence the democratic process," York said in the statement.
Montana's ethics code says a public officer or employee may not use public time, facility, equipment, supplies, personnel or funds to solicit support for or against a candidate, political committee or ballot issue.
Hearing officer Jamie McNaughton, who is a staff attorney for the commissioner of political practices, found FWP violated that code three times when the trappers association used the trailer and animal displays at three events in western Montana in May and June of 2014.
At those events, the trappers' association had signs opposing Trap Free Montana Public Lands' ballot initiative to ban trapping on the state's public lands.
McNaughton's proposed order, which Motl signed, says FWP staff knew or should have known the equipment could have been used for advocacy and that FWP should have taken steps to prevent that from happening.
Zipfel said that conclusion goes beyond the language in the state's ethics laws, as does Motl and McNaughton's requirement that state agencies have contractual agreements with anybody who uses state equipment.
The case is pending in Helena district court.
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