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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

2020 Candidate Interview: Austin Knudsen For Attorney General

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen
Austin Knudsen is the 2020 Republican candidate for attorney general.

Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio interviewed Montana's statewide general election candidates.

Austin Knudsen is the 2020 Republican candidate for Attorney General. Knudsen is currently the county attorney for Roosevelt County. He spoke with Montana Public Radio’s Corin Cates-Carney about his plans to shift funds from Helena to local law enforcement, being tough on drugs and violent crime, and maximizing the return on state trust lands.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for listenability and to remove references to inaccurate numbers regarding state budget line items and capacity at the Crossroads Correctional Center contracted by the state Department of Corrections.

Corin Cates-Carney: Austin Knudsen is the Republican candidate for attorney general. Thank you for taking the time.

Austin Knudsen: You bet.

Corin Cates-Carney: For voters who aren't familiar with who you are can you please give us a brief introduction?

Austin Knudsen: Sure. I'm a Republican candidate for attorney general. I am from northeast Montana, Roosevelt County. I'm currently the Roosevelt County attorney. So I'm the criminal prosecutor up in this part of the state. Farm and ranch originally from, Bainville and Culbertson area, a fifth generation up there on the family place. Grew up raising Angus cattle and spring wheat and putting up alfalfa hay. But really important to this job, I've been a practicing attorney in Montana for going on my 13th year now, 10 years of which was in the private sector representing all kinds of different private individuals in Montana: farmers, ranchers, small businesses, neighbors. And like I said, now for the last two years, I have been the elected Roosevelt County attorney, so the full time criminal prosecutor.

Corin Cates-Carney: And in your campaign for attorney general, you've stated that the attorney general needs to be, or I guess you've stated in your campaign that you believe Montana needs an attorney general that's a conservative criminal prosecutor. Can you explain a little bit more about what that means and why that's at the core of your message to voters?

Austin Knudsen: Well, I think the single biggest issue facing Montana right now is illegal drugs. It’s something I don't think it's nearly enough attention. But you look at the numbers on that, the crime rates across the board in Montana, increasing. And when you talk to your local sheriff's department or your local police department, or even any, any of the federal law enforcement agencies, they're all gonna tell you the same thing. And that is we have got a tremendous illegal drug problem in Montana. It's primarily methamphetamine. There are a couple others that are starting to make a comeback but methamphetamine is the real driver here in Montana. It's all Mexican cartel supplying these, these illegal drugs in Montana. And it truly is driving up all violent crimes just across the board in Montana in approximately the last six or seven years, and pretty dramatically. So I think it's really important that the attorney general in Montana be someone who's experienced in this area, someone who understands the issue, someone who's dealt with the issue firsthand and someone who's, you know, frankly, put drug dealers behind bars. This is what I do full time. I figure roughly 90 to 95 percent of my prosecutions in Roosevelt County are either meth or meth related prosecutions. And that's just an unfortunate reality. So yeah, I think that's why it's important that you have a really aggressive conservative criminal prosecutor in your attorney general's office.

Corin Cates-Carney: Studies show drug offenses involving meth have been climbing steadily in Montana since 2012. What's your plan for reversing that trend and is there going to be a cost to that effort?

Austin Knudsen: The plan is we've seen tremendous growth in the DOJ bureaucracy in Helena in the last 10 years. Well, longer than 10 years, let's be honest. Last 16 years, the Department of Justice has grown pretty dramatically. And unfortunately most of that growth has occurred in Helena, in, in a lot of bureaucracy. Not all, but a lot of it is in the bureaucracy. So my plan is I want to reduce some of that bureaucracy in Helena and I want to re-allocate those resources out to where I think they can actually do some good. And that is your local law enforcement, whether it's your county sheriff, whether it's your county attorney's office or whether it's your local police department, depending on where you live. These are the people who are actually dealing with the methamphetamine problem on the front lines. It's not the Department of Justice in Helena. So I don't think there's going to be any additional costs, Corin. I think we can do it with the increases that the Department of Justice has received in the last several biennium. Some of them are pretty dramatic. There's some fairly large increases that I, I think we can cut into. I think we could find some efficiencies. I think we can reduce. I think there's some good models for doing that from other Republican leaders in state government and I really think we can reallocate some of that funding and get it out to where it'll do some good. But that's going to take some cooperation from the Legislature. That's going to take me to working with the appropriations committee in the House and the Senate Finance Committee in the upcoming legislative session. but thankfully, I've got the background to do that, too. I served a couple of sessions as the Speaker of the House in the Montana Legislature and I've still got a lot of those relationships.

Corin Cates-Carney: And when you talk about wanting to cut back on the bureaucracy in Helena, specifically at the Department of Justice, do you have specific areas of the DOJ that you would want to trim down?

Austin Knudsen: There's a couple of areas I've been looking at, yeah. Motor Vehicle Division is one that I hear a lot about when I started taking the budget on. You know when you dig down into the state budget and Section D of House Bill 2, which is the state budget, you see Motor Vehicle Division, which is under the Department of Justice, they've received some pretty major increases in the last couple biennium. That's the kind of stuff I'm talking about. That's increases in pay raises and new hires and a bureaucracy in Helena that unfortunately has become very centralized and becomes very inefficient. Corin, I had no idea just how much of an issue this, this Motor Vehicle Division is, but it's one I hear about on the campaign trail, way more than I ever expected to. People are upset about the Motor Vehicle Division and some of the problems that are going on there with, you know, wait times, bureaucracy, inefficiencies. They’re very non-customer friendly. So this is one area specifically I'm looking at. But there certainly are others.

You know, Central Services of the Department of Justice. Now what's more bureaucratic than the division labeled central services? They got a bump, increase in the last biennium for 19 and 2020. Why? What are we getting for that? And I'm, I'm really looking at the fact that we've really dramatically increased spending in Helena in the last eight years. At the same time, violent crime is rising dramatically in the state. So we're not getting a good value for our tax dollar there.

Corin Cates-Carney: Got it. touching on what you mentioned about drugs in Montana and the use and the increase in prosecution of that crime. Wondering the other side of that story is substance abuse. a state legislative report from earlier this year shows the number of people receiving treatment for stimulants, like meth, has increased by 20% from 2017 to 2018. As attorney general what can you do with, to address the health complications of this issue along with prosecuting drug crimes?

Austin Knudsen: Well, treatment has to be a part of it because, I mean, let's, let's be honest, a large portion of these are, are people that aren't necessarily violent. They are addicted individuals that need treatment. So that certainly has to be part of the equation here. I've sent lots of individuals to treatment. I wish I could tell you that there were more people that were success stories from that. Unfortunately, what you see from methamphetamine use and abuse is people who say they want treatment, but who just really don't want to go to jail. They really would rather be out to be able to back with their friends and get back on their methamphetamine. And that's a testament to how powerful this product is. This Mexican cartel meth is not like the garbage meth we had in Montana 20 years ago. This is very high quality stuff, 98, 99 percent pure. it's cheaper than it was before. And it's very, very, very addictive, dangerous stuff. So treatment absolutely has to be part of the equation here. You know, the treatment courts get talked about a lot and I'm certainly an advocate for treatment courts.

The problem with treatment courts, and I've gotten this directly from the judges that run treatment courts in Montana, is that they tend to be very expensive. They're very resource intensive and those judges end up spending a lot of time with the same small group of individuals going through that court. So I know that's a frustration that exists within the treatment court system. So I mean, I'm not, I'm not precluding treatment at all. It certainly has to be part of the equation and when you've got someone who's willing to go to treatment and actually willing to admit they have a problem, that's when treatment is successful. And that's what you see across the board, you know, with any kind of substance abuse, whether it's alcohol, whether it's methamphetamine. The first step is admitting you have a problem and wanting to stop. That's the real issue with methamphetamine, is that it's very hard to find individuals that actually want to admit they've got a problem and see the havoc it's wreaking on their families, and on their health and on their home life, and want help.

Corin Cates-Carney: Another issue Montana is facing is overcrowding in county jails and at the state prison. How could you address this as attorney general and do you think fewer people in Montana should be locked up incarcerated?

Austin Knudsen: I'm not going to say fewer people should be locked up and incarcerated. I think this is largely a problem that the state of Montana has created. I've talked with a lot of county sheriffs and a lot of local police departments and this is, this is a real issue. The state Department of Corrections is sloughing off their obligation to take Department of Corrections inmates. Now, these are people who've gone through the process, they've been convicted, they are no longer supposed to be held in a county misdemeanor jail. These people are now technically inmates of the state. They are inmates of the state Department of Corrections and are supposed to go into Department of Corrections facilities, you know, wherever that may be, whether it's Deer Lodge or whether that's, you know, Crossroads Correctional or whatever the case may be. Fact is the state doesn't want to pay for them. Current Department of Corrections under Gov. Steve Bullock, they know those are very expensive inmates to house. It isn't that there isn't the room. It's simply that there isn't the budget and Gov. Bullock doesn't want to pay for them. So he's forcing local jails to keep holding these inmates because local jails can do it for cheaper. So from a dollars and cents standpoint, you can see why Governor Bullock is doing that. However, it's a complete dereliction of duty. There's room at Deer Lodge. It's simply a matter of budget. Those are expensive inmates to house and they don't want to spend the money.

It's creating a real issue for local jails, because frankly, you've got a lot of local and county jails in Montana that aren't necessarily the nicest facilities. A lot of them are outdated. A lot of them, frankly, are a legal liability for a lot of the counties, and they know it, which is why they're trying to get inmates out of there. But when, when you've got an inmate that the state Department of Corrections just says, 'Oh yeah, that's our inmate, but you know what? We're not coming to get them, thanks. Just hang on to them.' And when you've got felons, convicted felons who are serving out their entire sentences in a county jail, that's not what the system was designed for. So I, I gotta tell ya, I really don't buy the overcrowding. I think that's a red herring. It’s not a matter of overcrowding. It's a matter of what's costing the state of Montana per inmate in Department of Corrections facilities. That's the issue.

Corin Cates-Carney: Got it. Just have a couple more questions on, you know, specific issues then want to give you a chance to talk about, you know, how you stand out compared to your opponent Raph Graybill. 

Protests this summer called for reforms in policing and the criminal justice system across the country following the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans. How should Montana's next top law enforcement officer view this reckoning seen in the United States this summer when it comes to the criminal justice system?

Austin Knudsen: Well, I think we certainly have to be cognizant of what's going on. And, and of course, I mean, I'm a law enforcement official now, I'm a county attorney. I don't care who you are. If you're a private citizen or if you're a police officer, if you break the law, you should be held accountable. Again, I don't care who you are. That's my attitude towards it. I don't think we need more, more laws on the books. I don't think that helps anything. I think we need to enforce the laws evenly across the board, and fairly. And that's, that's the job of prosecutors and that's the job that I'll bring in as the attorney general.

Now with that said, I'm very much a pro law enforcement candidate. I work with law enforcement every day. I am very impressed every day with the law enforcement in Montana that I work with, whether it's my local sheriff's office, whether it's the tribal police officers, whether it's the federal officers over here on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation or on the border up here for Customs and Border Patrol. This idea that all cops are corrupt and all cops are bad and that we have to defund the police and reduce the number of police on the streets in Montana, that's just asinine. In Montana we've got a serious violent crime problem. And again, that's not just me saying that. I'm not a guy who's big on hyperbole. The numbers bear this out for us. This is a fact. So reducing the number of law enforcement out on the highways and on the streets in Montana, I think, is foolish and dangerous. I'm not a proponent of that. I'm very concerned when we've got towns like Helena, towns like Missoula that are, they're coming in with their city councils and defunding police and reducing training budgets. You know, I thought training is what we were advocating for all, for all these officers to get. So I think that's a very dangerous notion. So I'm not a proponent of the defund the police movement. I'm very much a ‘back the blue,’ pro law enforcement guy. And that's, I mean, I think it's fair that Montana voters know that about me. That's what you're going to get with a Knudsen attorney general.

Corin Cates-Carney: Got it. Thank you. As attorney general, if elected, you would be one of five statewide elected officials that sits on the Montana Land Board, which manages state trust land. What would be some of your priorities for managing those lands and how would you accomplish those goals?

Austin Knudsen: Sure. A couple of things. Priority number one has to be maximization. Those state trust lands are what fund K-12 public education. Period. So I think we have a duty and an obligation to the taxpayers of Montana to maximize the value you're getting off those state trust lands, because it truly does educate our children.

The thing I've got going for me is 10 years of private law practice. I've done a lot of land use work. I've done a lot of natural resource development work. I've represented a lot of farmers, a lot of ranchers, a lot of mineral owners in natural resource development cases and negotiating oil and gas leases, coal leases. And I've looked at literally thousands and thousands of oil and gas leases. I know that industry. I know those leases and I know what should be in them and what shouldn't be in them. So I, I, that's just something that I bring in that I think is going to be a real value to the Land Board, frankly, because I don't think there's anybody on there currently that's got as much background in that stuff as I do. So that's certainly a priority, Number one. 

Number two, land access. Recreational access. Montanans like public land. Montanans like to hunt on their lands. They like to recreate on their lands. They like to mountain bike and dirt bike and off road vehicle on their public land. That's going to be a big priority for me, is making sure that we're maintaining Montanans' ability for multiple use on public lands. So I'm going to, I'm going to come into the Land Board keeping a very close eye on those sorts of issues. I mean, we've seen a lot of it more on the federal side with trails getting closed down and access being closed off. I don't, I don't agree with that. I'm somebody who hunts on public land and I like to recreate on public land. And I know I'm not the only one in Montana who has that sentiment. So that's going to be a big priority on the Land Board.

Corin Cates-Carney: Got it. You're facing Democrat Raph Graybill in the general election. Why should Montanans vote for you instead of Graybill?

Austin Knudsen: Bottom line: experience. He's a very inexperienced lawyer. If you're gonna go out and hire yourself a lawyer, just, just think of your private life. You, you come across a legal problem, are you going to hire the kid who's fresh out of law school and has had one job, or are you going to go to the attorney who's got a diverse background, who's practiced law in the state of Montana for over a dozen years in all kinds of different courts and all kinds of different cases, representing all kinds of different clients? I think that's what you're going to look at. And that's, that's really the biggest difference here between Raph and me. He just doesn't have experience. He's worked for one law firm in Seattle for about 10 months and then he went to work for Gov. Bullock's office. And that is truly the extent of his legal background. He's only been out of law school five years. He's never prosecuted a criminal. He's never done a jury trial, whether that's a criminal case or on the civil side. He's never done that. He's never done a mediation. He's never done any kind of negotiation. I mean, I think these are the biggest differences between him and me is just the actual, practical, legal experience that we're going to bring to bear in this job.

Corin Cates-Carney: And he argues that, you know, he has experience in fighting for cases in the Supreme Court, in the Montana Supreme Court, in the U.S. Supreme Court. Is that experience that you think is, you know, could be valuable? And do you have that kind of experience?

Austin Knudsen: Well, first of all, I think that's a little bit of a misnomer as well. I mean, you go back and look at the records and a lot of the testimony or the arguments in front of those courts, that's outside hired legal counsel. Raph may have been sitting at the table but he wasn't the one actually doing the arguments for a lot of those cases. Certainly that's valuable experience. That's, I mean, that's something I can't take away from him, but I think he's making way too big of a deal out of that. Frankly, I think it shows a little bit of the activist bent that he's gonna bring to that job. He's really focusing hard on wanting to bring activist lawsuits and fight a lot of what, I think, are pretty radical fights in the Supreme Court system. I don't think that's the number one priority of the Montana attorney general. I think the number one priority right now has to be law enforcement. It has to be tackling this drug problem and this violent crime problem in Montana. Cause I gotta tell ya, that's what I'm talking about. When I'm driving around the state, nobody is talking to me about what lawsuits the state should bring to the U.S. Supreme Court. They're talking about the protests they're seeing in Seattle or Portland, Minneapolis. They're talking about the drug problems they're seeing in their neighborhoods and they're talking about violent crime. So I'm taking that to heart and I think that's, that should be the priority of attorney general.

Corin Cates-Carney: Are there other issues that you think voters should know about? Are there other issues that are important to your campaign that voters should know about?

Austin Knudsen: Sure. A fiscal conservative. I mean, that kind of goes hand in hand with what I started with. I wear that on my sleeve. I've always been a very fiscally conservative guy. After four sessions in the Legislature I think my voting records there bears that out. I'm going to be a budget hawk. I think we've seen a lot of growth and bloat in Helena that I'm not happy about. I'm not a Helena insider. I mean, when somebody, you know, when the Legislature was over I got out of town as quick as I could. I think Helena has prospered in the last 16 years while the state of Montana has had an economy that's been struggling. The ag economy has been struggling. Tourism now, because of wildfires and now because of COVID, has been struggling. But you'd never know it going to Helena. You know, home prices are up in Helena. The economy looks great in Helena. I think that's a problem. Government has done really well in the last 16 years in Helena while the state of Montana hasn't. And I really have a problem with that. So I'm going to be coming into the Department of Justice with that budget under pretty intense scrutiny. I'm under no illusions that we're going to get that under control in the first year. I think it's going to take me some time to get in there and really roll my sleeves up and see what we can do with that budget. But that's a really big one for me.

Corin Cates-Carney: Great. Austin Knudsen is the Republican candidate for attorney general. Thank you for taking the time.

Austin Knudsen: You bet. Thanks Corin.

Find more 2020 candidate interviews & questionnaires.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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