‘Dark money’ prosecutor sues state in public records row

Journalism prof: ‘It’s not the way I would teach a student to make a records request’

By: and - December 24, 2021 12:00 pm

The statue of Thomas Francis Meagher in front of the stairs of the Montana Capitol (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

A Billings attorney known for his involvement in prosecuting campaign finance violations is suing the state over a public records fight he’s picked with several top officials, including Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras and Attorney General Austin Knudsen.

Gene Jarussi, an attorney who represented the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices in high-profile litigation related to campaign finance law and expenditures by so-called dark money PACs, filed the suit in Yellowstone County District Court last week.

In October, Jarussi filed a series of records requests to several state agencies, which did not fulfill them, according to the lawsuit. He sought “all emails, text messages, call logs, or other electronic communications” received by Knudsen, AG senior advisor and prominent GOP consultant Jake Eaton and Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras from the beginning of their tenures in January to whenever the requests are fulfilled. He also requested records related to possible renovations done in the Department of Justice offices.

Lee Banville, a political analyst and journalism professor at the University of Montana, said he’s seen government throw roadblocks in response to records requests, and he said multiple legal disputes for state government records or public access have taken place in recent months. However, he said the scope of these requests is broad.

At first blush, it looks like the requestor was asking for a lot of material, and every day that it’s not fulfilled, it gets bigger,” Banville said. “It literally changes every day. It’s not the way I would teach a student to make a records request.”

Jarussi has a personal history with at least one of the names in the records requests: in the midst of Jarussi’s campaign finance prosecutions, Eaton filed a complaint of illegal campaign coordination against the attorney, though the complaint was eventually dismissed.

Jarussi and his counsel, former Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress John Heenan, say the state Department of Administration has claimed it’s not responsible for documents held by other agencies, while the AG’s office has acknowledged the request but never followed up. The lawsuit said the Governor’s Office acknowledged the request “but claimed it would take months to provide responsive information and estimated an inordinate 952.35 hours to comply with the request for 17,317 emails.”

Heenan said the requests were filed without any specific agenda other than that taxpayers have a right to public documents under the Montana Constitution.

The game they want to play is, they want you to make these tailored requests, and then they say, ‘Oh, to respond, that’s gonna take more time’,” Heenan said. “The beauty of an all-comms request is that it’s the easiest in terms of being able to quickly and at a low cost respond.”

Banville, the journalism professor, said he finds it inexcusable for a government agency to not be responsive to a records request at the most basic level.

However, he said the government does have a legitimate reason to give pause before fulfilling such a large request, as one of the records could violate a person’s constitutional right to privacy. At the same time, he said requests too narrow in scope can backfire.

“I always worry when requests are tailored in such a way that makes it easier for the government to deny it,” he said.

Generally, Banville said threatening exorbitant time frames and fulfillment costs have become common tactics used by the government to detract the public from seeking records.

“Over the last decade or so we have seen [government] agencies find more ways to thwart access to constitutionally legitimate records,” he said.

This isn’t the state’s only public records battle brewing in court. Lee Enterprises, which owns Montana newspapers including the Helena Independent Record, is suing the Montana Public Service Commission over high legal fees the agency tried to charge the newspaper firm before releasing the public documents.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.

Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .