Years of infighting between Republicans in Cascade County have spilled over to encompass a civil lawsuit claiming that administrators at an Eastern Montana high school knew about the systematic sexual abuse of a former athletic trainer.
Rep. Fred Anderson, a Great Falls Republican, served as a principal at Custer County District High School in Miles City at the same time that James Jensen, who worked as an athletic trainer for the school, has admitted to sexually abusing male student-athletes.
Jensen faces federal charges related to the abuse and state charges for possessing child pornography. He admitted some of the abuse to the Gazette and made more sweeping admissions in documents filed in federal court in an effort to plead guilty.
A letter from the chair of the Cascade Republican Central Committee, Sheridan Buck, demands that Anderson step down, in part because of his role at Miles City.
In a response posted to Facebook by Matthew Monforton, a former Republican legislator and attorney for the central committee, Anderson calls the letter "nothing more than a hit piece" and says he won't resign.
The committee has been enveloped in a political slap-fight between conservative hardliners and moderates. Buck ran against Anderson and lost in the 2016 primary election for his house seat. Anderson was re-elected in 2018.
The letter is just the latest literature targeting Anderson. The committee branded Anderson as a RINO — Republican in name only — in an email opposing a legislative bill aimed at curbing the committee's infighting, as reported by the Montana Free Press.
However, the letter is one of the first public rebukes of Anderson's alleged conduct in the Jensen scandal from Republicans.
Anderson told the Great Falls Tribune the district first heard the misconduct allegations in 1998 and that the superintendent subsequently let Jensen go.
A 1998 memo from four administrators, including Anderson, shows that the school "was informed by at least three individuals of situations involving male student-athletes of CCDHS and yourself which would violate the spirit and intent of policies and administrative directives concerning staff/student interactions."
The memo gave Jensen specific directives: That his athletic training activities be directly supervised by a coach; that he not work with students one-on-one; that he not give "body rub downs" to students without a third person present; that student-athletes not be invited to his house, generally or to stay overnight, without another adult present; and that he stop any "Mentoring Programs" with student-athletes.
Lawyers for the Custer County District High School have said the complaints cited in the memo were vague in nature and that administrators had no clue as to the scope of Jensen's abuse.
Lawyers for the alleged victims said the memo's directives are "indicative of abuse of children, particularly when they are read together," and questioned whether the district would have terminated Jensen's employment for vague concerns.
How much administrators knew about Jensen's abuse is central to the suit, given Montana's mandatory reporting laws.
Montana law requires all school employees who suspect abuse to report it to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. Anderson told the Tribune he doesn’t know what happened after he told the superintendent.
State officials said they don't have any record of any reports made to them by school officials regarding the compliant in the memo, but they didn't rule out that a report could have been made in the past.
The letter points to mandatory reporting requirements and says that Anderson is "put in a particularity vulnerable position. ... We fear you will become a central figure in the cover-up of these misdeeds."
In his response Anderson wrote, "While you accuse me of engaging in a cover up, nothing could be further from the truth. During the time the trainer worked at Custer County High School, my own sons attended Custer County High School and participated in athletic events. I would never have allowed my sons or any other students to be anywhere near that man if I had known about his activities."
“I don’t know Anderson’s involvement personally,” Buck said by phone Tuesday. “He can’t do the business of the people of Montana with this hanging over his head.”
Anderson disputed that notion in a Tuesday interview in Helena.
“The tragedy in Miles City, that’s really what I feel it was, is being brought into this for political purposes when it has no relation at all,” he said. “I don’t think it’s impacted my job very much, but it’s certainly created a lot of personal stress for me.”
Buck's letter also cites allegations from a 2011 hazing incident at Great Falls High School, where Anderson was principal, that resulted in a rape charge that was later dropped.
She also points to Anderson's "recent health problems." The Great Falls Tribune reported that he had a recent kidney transplant.
Much of the recent dispute focused on HB 318, a bill that changes rules for central committees. Proponents of the bill, like Great Falls Republican Steve Fitzpatrick, say that it will prevent infighting like that in Cascade County.
The Great Falls Tribune reported that in an email to a different committee member, Anderson said that he had intended to vote no on the bill — until he got Buck's letter.
Buck focused Tuesday on Anderson's connection to Fitzpatrick. Monforton's Facebook post accused Fitzpatrick of authoring Anderson's response letter.
“Steve Fitzpatrick, he’s the one who’s pulling all the strings for Anderson,” she said, claiming that Fitzpatrick "orchestrated (HB 318) as retaliation against us.”
She criticized any Republicans who break party lines, especially on that bill.
“They need to be put in their place.”