Bill would launch investigation against ‘environmental groups’

Ankney sponsors bill that would target groups opposed to coal

Colstrip power plant in Colstrip, Montana (Photo by Larry Mayer/Getty Images).

A day after some Republicans in the Montana House joined with Democrats to kill a controversial bill to allow NorthWestern Energy to purchase more power from Colstrip while cutting out the oversight of the Public Service Commission, Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, introduced legislation that would allow the Attorney General’s Office to investigative “environmental groups.”

Ankney made no bones about who he was targeting and why during a hearing in the Senate’s Finance and Claims Committee.

“I targeted environmental organizations period,” Ankney said. “You got to narrow these groups like we did with the hospitals through their nonprofit status. This one is aimed toward environmentalist organizations. There isn’t a trade organization that is trying to shut down coal mining.”

Ankney’s amendment to House Bill 693 is a part of a larger bill aimed at criminal justice and investigations. The amendment, which passed along party lines, commands the consumer protection division of the state’s Department of Justice to “investigate the electioneering and related political lobbying activities of environmental organizations.”

It says the investigation must include whether the organizations are meeting their purpose in their “tax exempt” status and report the number of Montana residents “actively signing annual membership agreements.”

The law would also examine funding structures, including “out-of-state sources, out-of-country sources,” and if those groups have failed to register as a corporation or business entity, or misled Montanans under consumer protection laws.

One area that also got Senate’s attention was a provision that would require the Attorney General’s Office to look at the “engagement in political speech, lobbying and other politically motivated activities,” including funding for staff and employment.

The legislation would also order the department to research “identify and list all legal actions involving environmental organizations acting to block or otherwise influence permitting, licensing, and other governmental action” dating back a decade.

“This isn’t a new thing or witch thing,” Akney said.

He defended HB693, saying there was precedent for asking the Attorney General’s Office to investigate groups.

Republicans, in their support of Ankney’s amendment,  said it’s similar to a study the Attorney General’s Office conducted into the practices of hospitals which have nonprofit status. That lengthy study spanned three attorneys general, both Democrat and Republican.

When Democrats on the committee raised concerns about the broad definition of “environmental groups,” Ankney responded that it was a simple definition, “Those that don’t make or see anything but their rhetoric.”

Others worried the definition was so broad so as to ensnare everything from a local Audubon Chapter to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, wondered if Ankney’s measure didn’t go far enough.

“Would this include truthfulness in statements particularly in hearings?” Cuffe questioned. “I’ve heard and I know there were some that were less than on target.”

But Ankney responded that his intent was focused more on written materials, flyers and pamphlets.

“With respect to the good people of your community, our state has a long history – Libby, Montana – we’re talking environmental groups (who fought against) asbestos in little league dugouts. This is really something out of the McCarthy era. We’ve already created a judicial inquisition committee and now were arming the DOJ to investigate every organization that’s attempting to protect us from poisoning water or polluting air,” said Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula. “This will be a lawsuit for sure.”

Ankney bristled at the suggestion.

“I take offense to any statement comparing me to McCarthyism,” Ankney replied. “I’m not a part of that political hack-ism. Certainly there are good things done but multiply that by 100 times by the false statements. This is about transparency. Even the opponents are talking about this like those organizations are guilty.”

Chairman Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, said that he had input a request for $250,000 in the large budget bill, House Bill 2, for an allocation to the Attorney General to conduct the investigation which will be due by the end of 2022.

The amendment passed along party lines, 12-to-7.