St. Peter's Health hospital in Helena. Credit: John S. Adams / MTFP

HELENA — A recently created legal position within the Montana Legislature is being put to use for the first time to investigate actions by Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen and other public officials toward St. Peter’s hospital in Helena earlier this month.  

The Montana Legislature’s Republican leadership on Monday authorized legislative special counsel Abra Belke to solicit state government documents to ascertain what happened between the attorney general’s office, hospital staff and a patient being treated for COVID-19. 

The role of the special counsel is outlined in state law passed during the 2021 Legislature. The position, appointed and directed by the House speaker and Senate president, can “investigate and examine state governmental activities” as well as inspect “records, books, and files of any department, agency, commission, board, or institution of the state of Montana.”

But many of the investigation’s next steps remain to be seen, a symptom of a new appointee executing a novel investigation. 

“At the current time, the focus of this inquiry is obtaining whatever records exist that will assist the public in having the greatest confidence that they know the full picture,” Belke said in a Tuesday phone interview. “I don’t know what those records are right now.”

CLASH BETWEEN ATTORNEY GENERAL, HOSPITAL STAFF

As first reported by Lee newspapers’ State News Bureau, St. Peter’s hospital has said the attorney general and other unnamed public officials “harassed and threatened” employees after medical staff refused to prescribe the COVID patient ivermectin, a drug that is not approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for use against COVID-19.

The attorney general’s office has dismissed the hospital’s characterization, claiming that officials responded to allegations that the patient’s communication with family members had been blocked and she had been prevented from taking “prescribed medications.” A spokesperson  acknowledged that Knudsen spoke with hospital executives by phone in response to the family’s complaints. The call took place days after Knudsen dispatched a Montana Highway Patrol officer to the hospital on Oct. 12 to take statements from the patient’s family. The officer’s report was then passed to the Lewis and Clark County attorney, who did not find reason for further investigation.

“At the current time, the focus of this inquiry is obtaining whatever records exist that will assist the public in having the greatest confidence that they know the full picture.”

Abra Belke, special counsel for the Montana Legislature

In the days following the publication of news reports about the incident, House and Senate minority leaders Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, and Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, sent a letter to Republican leadership requesting that the special counsel investigate “which public officials were involved in this incident” and seek “internal communications” held by the Department of Justice and other relevant public officials and agencies. Senate President Mark Blasdel and House Speaker Wylie Galt greenlit the investigation Monday.

“Speaker Galt and I strongly believe in government transparency and accountability. Serious allegations have been made by St. Peter’s Hospital and the media’s reporting on several key facts has been unclear,” Blasdel said in a written statement. “We’ve agreed to the minority’s request and have authorized the Legislature’s special counsel to examine any relevant government records in accordance with the law.”

WHO IS THE SPECIAL COUNSEL?

A 2016 graduate of Gonzaga University School of Law, Belke was admitted to the Washington State Bar in 2017. She has been granted temporary admission to the Montana State Bar by the Montana Supreme Court until she sits for the bar exam in February 2022. 

Before attending law school, Belke worked as a legislative aide in Washington, D.C., for former Montana congressman Denny Rehberg. She returned to government work in 2019 as a Senate staffer for Republican Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville. This year, she was appointed chief of staff for Senate Republicans. 

At the end of this year’s session, Blasdel commended Belke on the Senate floor for being his “conscience.”

“Every time I’d get over my skis, she’d rein me back in,” Blasdel said in his April remarks.

As part of her job during the session, Belke worked closely with the attorney general’s office as it represented the state Legislature in the high-stakes lawsuit over the extent of legislative subpoena powers. Asked Tuesday how she will balance the integrity of her investigation with her professional relationship with its subject, Belke said she has worked with “numerous public officials” during her time in the state Legislature, and reiterated that all public agencies are expected to comply with the special counsel’s duties as outlined in state statute. 

Currently, Belke said, her work as special counsel applies to obtaining existing records to ensure “the public is having the greatest confidence that they know the full picture.”

She also acknowledged the significance of conducting an investigation that will set the tone for future uses of the special counsel. 

Attorney General Austin Knudsen. Credit: Photo courtesy Austin Knudsen

“I am in regular contact with the attorneys at Legislative Services to come up with processes that will outlast me and will bring public transparency to this entire endeavor,” she said. “And I hope that with their help we will create a process that gives the public confidence and works fairly for anyone that the special counsel might investigate and any inquiry we might do in the future.”

Kyler Nerison, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, criticized Democrats on Monday for requesting the inquiry, labeling it a “partisan political stunt.” Nerison declined to answer when asked if his office has concerns about Belke specifically being tasked with the investigation.

THE BOUNDS OF THE INVESTIGATION

The inquiry authorized Monday lists Democratic leaders’ broad requests for documents, including contemporaneous notes and internal communications, held by the Department of Justice and Montana Highway Patrol about the October incidents. 

The special counsel’s actions are subject to the limitations on the Legislature’s investigatory powers. During the legislative interim, those powers are less robust than they would be during a session, preventing Belke from compelling witnesses or holding hearings.

Additionally, the special counsel does not have the authority to request documents from private, non-governmental entities such as St. Peter’s hospital. If the hospital were to distribute documents to state lawmakers or the special counsel specifically, two legislative staffers confirmed, those records could be included in the inquiry.

At this point, Belke has not been asked to compile her findings into a report or summary. Such direction would have to come from the House speaker and Senate president. The form the investigation’s final work product will take remains unspecified.

The timeline for the investigation is also undetermined. While there is a broad list of document requests to sift through, Belke said the length of the inquiry will depend on whether lawmakers expand the scope of their request. Barring further direction from legislative leadership, Belke said, the investigation could be wrapped up in the coming weeks. 

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.