A former Montana health official said Democratic governor Steve Bullock threatened her and other state employees who tried to blow the whistle on welfare fraud.
Wendie Fredrickson, who served as a Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services audit reviewer for more than 20 years, said Bullock "intimidated [state regulators] into ignoring fraud" when they discovered that "roughly about half of the payments were fraudulent" at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. After questioning the payments made to undocumented recipients, Fredrickson was stripped of her responsibilities and forced to retire in 2014. In an interview with the Washington Free Beacon, Fredrickson said she uncovered the allegedly fraudulent payments after performing a "routine review," but administration officials suppressed her attempt to report the payments to the state's Legislative Audit Division.
"When I went to write the report, they put me in a room with no phone, no internet. They did that with quite a few auditors, anyone they weren't happy with," Fredrickson said. "I went back to my desk and I had a note saying, ‘You're not allowed to talk to legislative audit, you're not allowed to talk to anyone.' And if I did talk to anyone, they threatened to sue, so I was scared to death to bring things forward."
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Fredrickson has decided to take what was once an internal battle against the governor's office to the campaign trail, running as a Green Party candidate for the Senate—a closely watched race between Bullock and Sen. Steve Daines (R., Mont.).
Bullock's office did not respond to a request for comment. His spokeswoman denied the allegations in 2016, telling the local Independent Record that the questionable transactions were "forwarded to the legislative auditor" who "failed to find evidence of fraud, waste, or abuse."
Fredrickson said that "several other auditors who did try to bring things forward" were "let go and paid to sign non-disclosure agreements." While the Bullock administration has not released the details of those agreements, a 2016 Independent Record report showed that at least seven officials "raised red flags before they were demoted or fired." Two of those staffers said Bullock ordered top state officials to send "questionable" welfare payments to voters on Indian reservations.
"If you brought things forward, they would just get rid of you," Fredrickson told the Free Beacon.
Republican state legislator Brad Tschida said Fredrickson's allegations are "indicative" of Bullock's tenure as governor. He accused the administration of acting with "very little openness and transparency."
"The number of complaints that have occurred during his tenure, in terms of those [alleging] a hostile work environment and harassment, have grown significantly," Tschida told the Free Beacon. He added that complaints made against the Bullock administration have resulted in "settlements that have not been made public."
Bullock's alleged wrongdoings are not unique to the state's health department. In August 2018, multiple Department of Corrections employees claimed they were retaliated against after levying sexual harassment accusations against director Reginald Michael. According to MTN News, Bullock "wouldn't allow top corrections officials to be interviewed" about the accusations. A former agency official went on to file a wrongful discharge lawsuit in September 2019, accusing Michael of engaging in a "quid pro quo of sexual favors for career advancement." Michael still serves as department director today.
Democrats are crying foul at Fredrickson's inclusion on the ballot since Montana GOP operatives helped finance a signature-gathering effort for the former whistleblower. Sandi Luckey, executive director of the state Democrats, told the Free Beacon that Republicans "deceived voters and violated campaign finance law to get the Green Party on the ballot." The state Democratic Party has now filed a lawsuit to remove Fredrickson from the ballot.
The Green Party candidate blasted the Montana Democratic Party's lawsuit in a July op-ed, calling the effort "no less than shameful."
"Let me be abundantly clear: my run for U.S. Senate as a candidate of the Green Party is about truth and transparency in our government—and I refuse to be silenced, like so many others have, through either bullying or non-disclosure agreements," Fredrickson wrote.
State GOP executive director Spenser Merwin denied the accusation, saying Montana Democrats are "spending tens of thousands of dollars on out-of-state trial lawyers to limit Montanans' choices this November so that Governor Bullock won't have to face a Green Party candidate that will expose the corruption of his Administration."
While state Democrats have condemned their partisan counterparts for boosting Fredrickson's candidacy, an outside group aligned with Democratic senator Jon Tester spent at least $500,000 boosting a Libertarian candidate in 2012. Tester went on to defeat Republican Denny Rehberg by just 4 points, and the Libertarian candidate received 6.6 percent of the vote.