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Legislative leaders OK investigation of dispute between Knudsen, hospital

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (April 2021)
Posted at 7:51 AM, Oct 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-26 09:51:02-04

HELENA — Montana’s top Republican legislative leaders have agreed to Democrats’ request to have a special counsel investigate a dispute between Attorney General Austin Knudsen and St. Peter’s Health.

Hospital leaders have accused Knudsen, a Republican, of using his office to “harass and intimidate” medical staff over their treatment of a COVID-19 patient.

On Monday, Senate President Mark Blasdel announced in a statement that he and House Speaker Wylie Galt would authorize the Legislature’s special counsel, Abra Belke, to examine government records in the case.

"Speaker Galt and I strongly believe in government transparency and accountability,” Blasdel said in the statement. “Serious allegations have been made by St. Peter's Hospital, and the media's reporting on several key facts has been unclear.”

A spokesperson for Knudsen provided a statement to MTN:

“Not a single Montana Democrat legislator reached out to our agency with any questions about the incident before this partisan political stunt,” they said. “As we’ve said from the beginning, no one was threatened or had their clinical judgment questioned while the Department of Justice was trying to get to the bottom of the allegations made against the hospital.”

Last week, Lee Newspapers reported that Knudsen spoke with hospital executives and sent a Montana Highway Patrol officer to the hospital to investigate a complaint from a patient who had said she was refused certain drugs, which she’d requested. St. Peter’s claimed physicians were “harassed and threatened” and that “three public officials” insisted that the hospital give treatments for Covid-19 “that are not authorized, clinically approved or within the guidelines established by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.”

Knudsen’s office confirmed an MHP officer had been sent to talk to the patient’s family at the hospital, but disputed the hospital’s version of events, and said no intimidation occurred. It said Knudsen and the Department of Justice were “trying to get to the bottom” of allegations that the hospital was mistreating the patient and violating her rights.

After the newspaper story came out, Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said it raised “serious questions” about whether Knudsen was using his office to further a personal agenda. They sent a letter to Blasdel and Galt, asking them to have the special counsel investigate the reports.

Blasdel responded, saying he needed more details on the "purpose, scope and method” of the inquiry before considering their request.

On Monday, the Democratic leaders sent an additional letter, saying an investigation would help determine “whether legislation is necessary to enhance legislative oversight of Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) law enforcement activities, clarify the parameters of DOJ and Highway Patrol (MHP) jurisdiction to intervene in local law enforcement and prosecutorial affairs, and prevent similar abuses of power in the future.” They suggested that Belke request internal communications in the Department of Justice and the Attorney General’s office about the incident.