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Bozeman attorney Ben Alke, a Democrat, launched his campaign for state attorney general last week, attacking incumbent Republican Austin Knudsen in a biting speech to supporters at the Helena taproom operated by the Montana Department of Justice’s most recent Democratic chief.
“The office of attorney general is a serious job. You’re the chief legal officer of the state of Montana. You’re the chief law enforcement officer,” Alke said. “The criteria that you think about when you’re making decisions has nothing to do with politics. It is not about your political party. It’s about seeking the truth.”
Knudsen, he claimed, “does not understand how to do his job.”
Speaking to a crowd of two or three dozen at Brothers Tapworks, a beer bar that former Democratic Attorney General and Governor Steve Bullock and his brother opened this year, Alke recited several of the state DOJ’s Knudsen-era controversies. To wit:
In 2021, Knudsen’s office directed Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher to drop two misdemeanor concealed-carry charges against a man who brandished a firearm at a Helena restaurant after repeatedly being asked to comply with the restaurant’s — and the state’s — mask requirement. Gallagher told the DOJ he couldn’t dismiss the charges “and still comply with [his] oath of office,” so he asked the state to carry out the prosecution instead. Knudsen’s office quickly began settlement negotiations.
Later that year, Lee newspapers reported that the AG’s office dispatched a state trooper to St. Peter’s Health in Helena to investigate claims by the family of a former state Senate employee hospitalized there with COVID-19 that doctors were mistreating her. The family said doctors would not treat the woman with ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, and claimed the hospital was denying her access to legal documents and her relatives, among other allegations.
The arrival of the highway patrol, in concert with a phone call to the hospital in which late Chief Deputy Attorney General Kris Hansen referenced possible litigation, led St. Peter’s to release a statement saying hospital staff had been harassed and threatened by public officials for not prescribing an unapproved treatment for the virus. Knudsen’s office denied threatening anyone, and a subsequent legislative probe led Republican lawmakers to claim exoneration for Knudsen, and Democrats to claim proof of wrongdoing. The hospital maintained its characterization of events.
Montana’s attorney ethics agency filed a complaint against Attorney General Austin Knudsen accusing him of violating the rules of professional conduct that apply to lawyers in Montana.
“[Knudsen] has used the office as a weapon,” Alke said. “He’s used the power granted to that office for inappropriate purposes, to try to divide us.”
He also highlighted a recent complaint against Knudsen, now before Montana’s attorney discipline board, alleging that communications from Knudsen’s office to and about justices of the Montana Supreme Court during a thorny 2021 separation-of-powers case violated the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct.
The accumulation of these incidents — serial departures from legal norms about which Knudsen has expressed no compunction — motivated Alke to run for attorney general, he told Montana Free Press in an interview ahead of the launch event Sept. 23.
“When it gets to the point where, you know, the chief law enforcement officer and chief legal officer in the state of Montana is making some of the decisions that the current attorney general has made, that’s quite frankly more than a little bit disturbing,” Alke said. “And that’s why I’m here.”
Alke, 44, is from Helena, the son of prominent attorney and corporate lobbyist John Alke. His law degree is from Northwestern University outside of Chicago. He clerked for former Montana Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris — now the state’s chief federal district court judge — and began a 17-year career in a variety of private practice litigation areas, representing, he said, individuals and corporate entities on both sides of the “v.” He now works at the Bozeman office of Crist, Krogh, Alke & Nord.
Alke, a self-described centrist, said he wants to dial back what he calls partisan fervor in the AG’s office and focus on enforcing and defending existing laws. And while he emphasized that he wants to keep politics out of the legal system, he explicitly situated his campaign within the current political fight about Montana’s judiciary.
“I don’t think that the court should be political, and I think that’s how it’s designed,” Alke said. “We have an independent judiciary for a reason. It’s the third branch of government that serves as the balance of power over the executive and legislative branches. And my view is that I think the judges and the justices in Montana are doing the best they can to render decisions based on the facts and the law.”
MTFP first reported that Alke had filed to run for attorney general in early August. Since then, Republicans have gone on the offensive, calling him a wealthy trial lawyer — code, in conservative political speak, for “Democrat” — with “deep ties to liberal legal establishments,” as the state GOP put it in an August press release. (Brian Morris was an Obama appointee to the federal court, and Alke previously worked for Jim Goetz, a well-known liberal constitutional attorney in Montana).
When the professional conduct complaint against Knudsen became public earlier this month, Republicans aligned with the attorney general intimated that the complaint was being publicized now — rather than closer to the relevant events, which took place two years ago — because Alke was rumored to be announcing his campaign soon. Alke told MTFP he had nothing to do with the complaint, no foreknowledge of it, and couldn’t otherwise comment.
“They’ll try to pigeonhole you,” Alke said. “But the fact of the matter is, all I am is just a lawyer, and that’s what I want to bring to the office. I’m not bringing any particular ideology. I don’t have an ax to grind other than that what I want to see happen is the impartial enforcement of justice and for that office to operate with excellence in the way that it’s designed to do.”
Knudsen has yet to officially announce his candidacy for re-election.
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