Montana State Sens. Call for Probe Into Whistleblower Retaliation by State Govt.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D.) / AP
October 26, 2016

Montana State Sens. Dee Brown (R.) and Bob Keenan (R.) called this week for a special legislative committee to investigate alleged retaliation against state auditors who raised questions over certain payments from the state government.

The lawmakers sent a letter to Montana state legislators on Monday asking others to join them in calling for a committee to look into claims that state auditors were discouraged from investigating questionable payments the state had made. Former Montana auditors, who raised questions about various payments made by state officials, faced demotion or termination for doing so, the Helena Independent Record reported in September.

Emails from current and former DPHHS [Department of Health and Human Services] staffers, along with court filings and whistleblower complaints obtained by the Independent Record, identified at least seven long-tenured state employees who raised red flags before they were demoted or fired. At least three staffers who raised questions were accused of insubordination before being fired.

Two of those staffers claim high-level administrators, acting on orders from [Gov. Steve] Bullock, pushed through "questionable" welfare payments to important Democratic voting blocs on Indian reservations and ignored DPHHS auditors' questions about hefty checks cut to major welfare program contractors. Bullock, through a spokeswoman, flatly denied those claims.

The story referenced interviews with a former DPHHS staffer, Wendie Fredrickson, who had left her job after being bullied by higher-ups after she flagged potential misspending by the state government. She said potentially fraudulent payments went to undocumented welfare recipients. When Fredrickson raised these questions, she alleged that she was told to continue making the payments. When she refused, she was stripped of her responsibilities as an auditor.

After the story broke, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock denied ever interfering with state auditors' responsibilities. Former DPHHS employees who have raised these concerns have suggested that employees within the governor's office knew and directed the suppression of whistleblowers.

Another former DPHHS employee, Carol Bondy, filed a lawsuit last week against the state government for similar allegations of bullying and intimidation by more senior level state employees for raising concerns about state government payments. Her lawsuit also charges that officials asked that she terminate an audit of a grantee after the state paid out $123,000 to the recipient.

Bondy reported the misuse of funds to federal officials, which she believes contributed to her termination, and alleges department officials withheld information requested by the state legislature in 2015 on the financial performance of the Medicaid program.

A 17-year veteran of the DPHHS, Bondy said that she also was dismissed of her responsibilities because she raised concerns about the state's payments, the Great Falls Tribune reported.

Bondy, an audit bureau chief for DPHHS, alleges she was prevented from doing several "high-risk" audits, the lawsuit states. That included a review of the contracting process used by the Human and Community Services Division, an audit of the Guardian/Conservator process used by the Audit Protective Services Bureau, an audit of the client intake process used by the Child and Family Services Division, and a cost-analysis audit of the Columbia Falls Veterans' Home.

Court records indicate other intimidation tactics employed by DPHHS senior management towards lower level employees. The records filed show that senior DPHHS officials also withheld audits requested by state lawmakers. One state employee ignored their orders and sent the requested audits anyways. They were subsequently fired for doing so.

District Judge DeeAnn Cooney, who was initially overseeing the case, recused herself on Wednesday because she is married to the state's lieutenant governor, Mike Cooney. The lawsuit filed by Bondy levels the allegations not only at the department but against the governor's office as well.

Published under: Corruption , Montana