Bullock issues order on employee settlements after original bill vetoed

Monday, May 13, 2019

HELENA (AP) — Gov. Steve Bullock issued an executive order Friday to bar most state agencies from entering into confidential employee settlements after he vetoed a bill that sought to do the same thing.

Bullock’s veto letter said he was concerned with the unintended consequences of the legislation sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Mercer, but agreed with the intention of the bill.

“I do not believe that the State of Montana should enter into confidential settlements, unless there is a compelling personal privacy interest,” Bullock, a Democrat, wrote in his veto letter. “And I believe that information about settlements with public dollars should be kept consistently and be easily accessible online.”

His executive order states that employee settlements with the state executive branch agencies are public information unless the individual’s privacy right clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.

It requires the state to include on its Montana Transparency website a section that lists any settlements with the date, the agency involved and the amount paid. The information must be published within 60 days of the settlement and be available online for three years.

Mercer’s bill called for a website that listed those details along with a description of the alleged acts or omissions, something Bullock said ran the risk of publicizing false allegations.

“It has been disappointing to see the depth of the governor’s opposition to a fundamental part of open government — regular disclosure of information about money being spent by the State on settlements and timely disclosure of all demands for money from the state treasury,” Mercer said Friday. “His veto means that the State continues to have authority to enter into a non-disclosure agreement when it settles a case.”

The governor’s executive order does not apply to settlements involving agencies whose leaders are elected. Mercer’s bill would have, but Bullock does not have the authority to set policy for agencies such as the Department of Justice or the state Auditor’s Office.

Mercer’s bill also would have required quarterly disclosures to the Legislature of initial demands for money and the amount of the claims.

“The veto ensures that we will remain in the dark there as well,” Mercer said.

The bill came out of a partisan interim committee created to investigate after the Legislative Audit Division issued a memo saying the state paid out $1.2 million in settlements between 2003 and 2012 and then nearly $3 million between 2013 and 2017. Republicans said the settlements amounts were “skyrocketing” under Bullock while his budget director said the administration created a new account to better track settlements.

Bullock’s veto letter said he would have liked to have issued an amendatory veto, but could not because the bill was not sent to his office until after the Legislature adjourned.

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