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Montana Democrats want investigation of attorney general

by AMY BETH HANSON Associated Press
| October 26, 2021 9:00 AM

HELENA (AP) — Republican leaders in the Legislature on Monday approved a request by Democratic lawmakers to look into the Montana Department of Justice's involvement in investigating a complaint made by the family of a COVID-19 patient at a Helena hospital.

St. Peter's Health said last week that three public officials threatened to use their positions to force doctors and nurses to treat the patient with ivermectin, a drug used for parasites that is not federally approved to treat the respiratory disease.

"These officials have no medical training or experience, yet they were insisting our providers give treatment for COVID-19 that are not authorized, clinically approved or within the guidelines established by the FDA and the CDC," hospital spokesperson Andrea Groom wrote in an email to the Montana State News Bureau on Oct. 18.

"Serious allegations have been made by St. Peter's Hospital, said Senate President Mark Blasdel, while noting that several key facts reported in the media remain unclear. Blasdel said he and House Speaker Wylie Galt "strongly believe in government transparency and accountability" and authorized the Legislature's special counsel "to examine any relevant government records in accordance with the law."

The hospital did not name the public officials who were involved, but Attorney General Austin Knudsen's office confirmed a Montana Highway Patrol trooper was sent to the hospital to investigate the family's complaint and that Knudsen later participated in a conference call with hospital executives, the Montana State News Bureau reported.

It's unclear exactly when the Department of Justice became involved.

The woman's family reported that the hospital refused to allow her to receive prescribed medications, didn't deliver legal documents, didn't allow them to see her and at one point even cut off text messaging communication, Knudsen's office said.

Kyler Nerison, a spokesperson for Knudsen, said the investigation had nothing to do with the woman's medical treatment, but was about allegations that the hospital mistreated her and violated her rights and her family's rights.

The hospital was providing care "in accordance with clinical best practice, hospital policy and patient rights," Groom said.

Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott requested the investigation last week and met with Blasdel and Galt on Monday to discuss the issue.

Cohenour and Abbott said they want special counsel Abra Belke to request emails, voicemails, records of phone and video calls, text messages, letters, memos and notes to determine which public officials were involved in the incident and to what extent, along with documentation of what led to a trooper being dispatched to the hospital. Helena Police usually handle security issues at the hospital.

They also want Belke to determine what policies and practices govern when and how the Justice Department and the Montana Highway Patrol intervene with local law enforcement and prosecutors and determine whether those policies were followed.

The Democrats said the information could help them determine whether the Legislature should have more oversight over the use of state law enforcement, whether legislation is needed to clarify the Montana Highway Patrol's jurisdiction and whether legislation is needed to clarify when the Justice Department can intervene. It could also help lawmakers "draft legislation to prevent future such abuses of power."

"We hope and expect as (Belke's) work proceeds, she will go wherever the facts take her in order to obtain information necessary for public accountability regarding this troubling incident," Cohenour and Abbott wrote Monday to the Republican leaders.

No Democratic lawmakers reached out to the Justice Department with any questions about the incident before requesting the investigation, Nerison said Monday.

"As we've said from the beginning, no one was threatened or had their clinical judgement questioned while the Department of Justice was trying to get to the bottom of the allegations made against the hospital," he said in a statement.

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