Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen.

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Montana Democrats on Thursday entered the fray surrounding the decision by the state Attorney General's Office to dispatch a Montana Highway Patrol trooper to a hospital in Helena last week. 

In the letter to legislative leadership, Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour of East Helena and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott of Helena requested the Legislature use a newly created special counsel to investigate the Attorney General's Office, citing questions of impropriety and abuse of power.

Kim Abbott

Kim Abbott

Jill Cohenour

Jill Cohenour

"As a co-equal branch of government, the Legislature has a duty to perform oversight of Executive Branch officials and agencies, especially when there are questions of impropriety and abuse of power," Cohenour and Abbott said in the letter to House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, and Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell. "Therefore, we ask that you take immediate action to begin a probe into the incidents at St. Peter's Hospital, the actions of the Attorney General, and the involvement of any other public officials or employees." 

The question arose from an incident in which St. Peter's Health said its doctors were threatened and harassed by three public officials over the care of a COVID-19 patient who had requested ivermectin, a drug not approved for the virus. The Attorney General's Office, after hearing from the patient's family, sent a trooper to the hospital to take statements. Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican, later called hospital leaders. 

Knudsen's office has since defended the attorney general's actions and has disputed the hospital's description of events.

"Given the misinformation being reported in the media regarding this incident, we welcome a conversation with any member of the legislature," Attorney General spokesperson Kyler Nerison said in an emailed statement Thursday. "So far, no Democrats have reached out."

The attorney general's office has not requested a correction to stories published this week by the Montana State News Bureau. 

Cohenour said Democrats wanted to approach the matter as a caucus.

"I think it's more important that the Legislature exercise its oversight of the executive branch, and that's what we're asking for," she said.

Democratic leadership who signed on to the letter asked Legislative leaders for a prompt response Thursday.

“This harassment campaign is a deeply disturbing abuse of power by the Attorney General,” Cohenour and Abbott said in an emailed statement Thursday. “Knudsen’s actions raise serious questions about his judgment and whether he is deserving of the trust invested in his office. The public deserves to know the facts and Knudsen must be held to account.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte, also a Republican, said after a press conference in Butte on Thursday he supported health care workers, but stopped short of condemning the attorney general's actions.

“I don't have the details on what happened there, but I stand with our health care workers. We need to support them so we can get through this together,” Gianforte said.

“So much of our effort has been focused on getting relief for our health care workers, whether it's calling up the National Guard, providing contract staffing from contract nursing firms to what we're doing here today getting external (help), because they've been on the front lines for 19 months. They have to suit up every morning and come to work.”

The Attorney General's Office has asserted its law enforcement response to St. Peter's Health was not to direct medication administration but to investigate patient abuse or neglect of the patient, stating the patient's family had reported being cut off from communication with the woman in her 80s. St. Peter's has rejected that report, stating its teams are providing care in accordance with clinical best practice, hospital policy and patient rights. The hospital also said the elected officials threatened providers and demanded specific medical treatment.

On Wednesday, spokesman Kyler Nerison said the Department of Justice had jurisdiction to investigate any complaints of patient abuse and neglect, pointing to the authority of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. Federal funding for that unit is conditional upon it being "a single, identifiable entity in its own continuous space within the office of the state Attorney General," while the Montana Highway Patrol's jurisdiction is outlined in state law as limited to offenses on highways, rest areas, and state highway properties adjacent to the highway. 

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff, which shares jurisdiction over the hospital property with the Helena Police Department, on Wednesday disputed the Attorney General's claim to jurisdiction.

"As chief law enforcement officer of the state, the Attorney General holds an office of incredible authority and public trust," the letter from Democratic leaders said. "Accordingly, Montanans expect that whoever holds that office will conduct themselves with impeccable judgment and impartiality."

— Reporter Holly Michels contributed to this story.

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