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Special counsel to review AG's records in hospital dispute next week

Montana State Capitol

The Montana State Capitol in Helena, Mont.

The state Legislature's special counsel next week will examine records related to the dispute between the Montana Attorney General's Office and a Helena hospital, a spokesperson told news outlets Friday.

The counsel's meeting with the top law enforcement office in the state follows an incident where St. Peter's Hospital in early October said three public officials threatened and harassed its doctors who refused to administer ivermectin, which is not approved to treat COVID-19, to a patient who requested it. Two of the officials are Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Chief Deputy Attorney General Kris Hansen. The third has not been publicly identified. 

The Attorney General's Office disputes the hospital's characterization of the exchange and has said its Department of Justice still investigating "serious allegations" of patient mistreatment and that the patient was being denied access to legal documents. The Attorney General's Office sent a Montana Highway Patrol trooper to the hospital to gather statements. That trooper took their report to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney's Office, which found nothing that warranted further criminal investigation.

Special Counsel Abra Belke last week requested the Attorney General's Office provide the materials by Friday. That came after the state Legislature approved using the newly created special counsel position to investigate the incident.

The patient at the center of the dispute has since died.

Due to the ongoing investigation by the DOJ, Belke will instead examine the records at the Attorney General's Office next week, legislative spokesperson Kyle Schmauch said Friday. The ongoing nature of the investigation  could mean the Attorney General's records related to the dispute are considered confidential criminal justice information. Schmauch emphasized Friday the Legislature's probe is still in the early stages.

"The AG has told both the press and the special counsel that there's an ongoing investigation, and invited (Belke) to come do her initial examination in person in light of that," Schmauch said Friday. "It's too early for anyone from the Legislature to say what records may be privileged, protected by law, or not."

A spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office said in an email Friday "at least some" of the records prepared for the legislative probe fall under the statutory definition of confidential criminal justice information. 

The Montana State News Bureau has also made several requests for records and information related to the incident, several of which are outstanding.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen.

The Attorney General's Office has characterized the probe as a “partisan political stunt,” but House Speaker Wylie Galt and Senate President Mark Blasdel, two Republicans, gave their requisite approval for the investigation sought by Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, both Democrats.

Belke was the chief of staff for the Senate Republicans during the 2021 Legislature, when the special counsel position was created.

With degrees from Gonzaga University in law and George Washington University in political management, Belke passed the Washington Bar Exam in 2017 and Belke was recently admitted to the state bar in Montana on a temporary basis until she takes the exam here in February. Belke was a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association from 2011 to 2013 and by then had already notched some Capitol Hill experience as a legislative assistant for Rep. Denny Rehberg.

At the end of the 2021 session, Blasdel, who is now termed out of office, praised Belke for her work with the GOP leadership during the Legislature. 

"She was my conscience," Blasdel said. "Every time I’d get over my skis she would rein me back in."

Montana State News Bureau

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