HELENA — Gov. Greg Gianforte was sued Tuesday over his refusal to release any documents that contained advice or legal evaluation from state attorneys on bills before the 2021 Legislature.
The lawsuit, filed by a former aide to Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and attorneys who worked for Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, asked a state judge to order the release any of the documents not deemed “privileged” between a lawyer and client.
Jayson O’Neill, the former Schweitzer aide, told MTN News he wants to see if Gianforte was advised about the possible unconstitutionality of bills, before he signed them into law.
“I wanted to know if the governor’s office is getting input from state agencies about the constitutionality of legislation and the impact it would have on Montanans, and whether the governor’s office heeded that advice or warning,” he told MTN News.
The Gianforte administration denied O’Neill’s request in July, saying the documents he requested are legal advice and therefore confidential under attorney-client privilege, the lawsuit said.
Brooke Stroyke, spokeswoman for the governor, said Tuesday the office doesn’t comment on pending litigation – “especially partisan lawsuits launched by left-wing political operatives.”
O’Neill worked as a deputy press secretary for Schweitzer and has worked for the state Department of Agriculture and the Western Values Project. He said he also works independently as a “government watchdog consultant.”
O’Neill said he asked the governor’s office in May for any “agency bill monitoring forms” or emails referring to the forms, which are communications from state lawyers to the governor’s office about bills before the 2021 Legislature.
O’Neill’s suit said the governor can’t claim a blanket protection for the documents as attorney-client communications, because they contain information about “the passage and signing of laws that affect the lives of Montanans and bear on Montanans’ ability” to observe their government.
He also said if Gianforte believes the laws he signed are constitutional, the governor should have nothing to hide, and should release the communications.
Raph Graybill – the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for state attorney general in 2020 and one of O’Neill’s lawyers in the case – said Montanans need to know if the governor’s office knowingly signed off on unconstitutional legislation.
“These forms tell the story of what the governor knew about bills that threatened Montanans’ constitutional liberties,” he said Tuesday.
Multiple groups, including the state Democratic Party and other left-leaning organizations, have filed more than a dozen lawsuit this year challenging laws passed by the Republican-majority Legislature and signed into law by Gianforte, the first Republican governor since 2004.