John Adams: “The Walter Ego”

Anybody see John Adams’ piece in the Missoula Independent today, on Governor Schweitzer’s brother’s influence in his administration? At risk of sounding like a partisan hack, it doesn’t seem terribly…controversial?

Let’s catalogue the accusations and examine them, one by one:

“Montana’s nepotism laws make it illegal for the governor to hire his brother as an official policy adviser or member of his cabinet, but the fact that Walter’s not on the state payroll doesn’t deter him from playing a key role in the administration. That same fact leaves him exempt from what politicians like to call the sunshine of public scrutiny, or the press. But multiple elected officials, lobbyists and bureaucratic staffers confirm that Walter is Brian’s front man on many policy and political matters.”

I’m not sure how Walter Schweitzer is different than any other lawmaker’s staffer or policy advisor, other than the fact that he’s not on the state payroll. Are other policy-makers or staffers held accountable for policy? No. The ultimate responsibility for policy lies with the boss, and that’s Brian Schweitzer.

Remember, just because he’s the governor’s brother doesn’t mean he’s not qualified to advise Schweitzer. The opposite may be true, if you think Walter Schweitzer has had a hand in his brother’s political and policy successes.

“The overall concern of Democrats is that there’s going to be a scandal that’s going to hurt Brian,” one Democratic lawmaker told the Independent. “There’s a lot of people who have a lot of hope for this administration, and this relationship Brian has with his brother is the one thing that is just weird. If Brian Schweitzer is going to have a problem, it’s going to be around Walt: Who’s paying him and what’s his accountability?”

Accountability lies with the governor, of course. As for paying…well…that is a good question. One that should be answered. How is the governor funding his brother’s non-state position? Is he using government funds?

Walter is known, in Helena if not beyond, as the governor’s enforcer, firewall and political bully. Most of the lobbyists contacted by the Independent told the paper they’re afraid to talk about him for fear of political retribution. Lawmakers refused to go on the record about Walt for fear that he and the governor would make it impossible to pass their bills in the upcoming legislative session.

As distasteful as this may seem, is this uncommon? Don’t most administrations have the “good cop/bad cop” staffers? One guy to chase away the problems and keep the wayward in line, the other to mend fences and forge alliances? One the governor’s accomplishments is his penchant for budget surpluses. If Walter’s bullying chases away legislators with pie-in-the-sky and expensive bills…that’s a good thing.

The main question asked by the people I talked to is this: Given that he seems to spend most of his time at the capitol, and given that he isn’t employed by the state, how does Walter make his living in Helena?

Now this is an important question. That should be answered.

There were also some remarks on Walter Schweitzer’s background and whether he was “qualified” to be an advisor of the governor’s, but Walter’s background – a rancher – seems to make him as qualified for a government position as Conrad Burns, Jon Tester, or Brian Schweitzer himself.

Ultimately my feelings on the issue are mirrored in the following quote:

“I will tell you there’s an upside and a downside to Walter’s presence in Helena,” one high-ranking Democrat told me. “The upside is…that there’s value in having somebody there that the governor absolutely trusts in an unvarnished way.”

The downside, the source said, is that the presence of the governor’s brother at high-level policy meetings raises concerns for some about his influence on policy decisions.

“I think it’s perfectly fine if the governor wants his brother to be involved…but then I think that his portfolio and job description, and what he does and doesn’t do, ought to be defined. I think that would be good for the governor and good for the Democratic Party.”

One of Adams’ biggest sources in this story is – surprise! – Bob Keenan. Keenan has been trying to make this an issue for quite some time, and even gave Adams “hundreds of pages from Walter’s state-owned electronic mail account from 2004 and 2005.” (How and why Keenan spent so much time acquiring the correspondence is a mystery.)

Keenan has been rumored to be interested in – guess what – running for governor! That’s right! One of the folks who’s “concerned” about Walter’s influence in Helena has a vested interest in seeing the governor embroiled in scandal. And the timing for this piece, scant days before the November election, also benefits Keenan’s pals, like Burns for whom Keenan recently stumped. If Burns’ camp wants to nullify the ethics scandal, he can point to this article and say “Schweitzer doed it, too!”

Of course, no way do I suspect that John Adams was played here. Nor do I think Adams wrote this story with the November elections in mind. I’ve met John a couple times – surrounding the blogger article he wrote – and I trust him completely. He’s a true investigative reporter, a man who’s keenly concerned with the integrity of our elected officials.

While I’m not overly concerned with Walter’s position, I do think Adams’ article – though at times substituting hyperbole for genuine ethical issues – has brought up some good questions that the governor should answer. Give Walter a portfolio, a job description, an official role. Make Walter’s funding transparent. Let us know what he does, exactly. Bring everything above board and have done with it.

  1. Reader

    Mostly, the issue is that Montana has very robust disclosure laws so that the processes by which policy gets made are transparent. Walt’s not subject to any of them. He’s not answerable to me or you or anyone else, but it does sound like he’s terribly influential.

    You say “accountability lies with the governor, of course” but transparency is different from accountability. When the actions of someone at the DEQ get called into question, the phone records are right there to be looked it. Not so for someone completely behind the scenes.

    And people are intimidated by Walt. Thirty sources and nearly all of them not wanting to say anything on the record? Hardly encouraging.

    Look, I wish Schweitzer the best but he does remind me just a little bit of ole Willie Stark. I guess his reaction to this story will be a good gauge of whether he’s got a ‘with me or against me’ mentality or is amenable to having the wisdom of his choices questioned.

  2. Well, I’m certainly for transparency. I think the anonymously cited Democrat was right on when he said a role should be defined for Walter.

    But…intimidation is an old political tool. Just because we don’t like the personality of a staffer doesn’t mean that staffer should get the sack. Else I’d be demanding loads of resignations.

    I guess I’m missing some basic point here. If the governor were the intimidator, would that be okay? Why can’t his brother do his dirty work for him?

    In an email someone said the basic problem is that people don’t know who Walter represents. He’s like a super-lobbyist with ultimate access to the governor. And looking back at Adams’ story, there is an insinuation that Walter might have had a hand in the coal policy and setting mercury standards. Was he representing someone else when setting that policy?

    That would be a concern, if industry or special interest groups were using Walter to steamroll their agendas into the Governor’s office.

    …and here’s where I start arguing with my earlier impressions, I guess…

    …but we should probably know who’s speaking with Walter, which lobbyists have access to him, etc & co.

    Anybody else? Speak up!

  3. It’s my opinion that Montana’s nepotism laws have been broken. They make it illegal to appoint a relative to any position of trust, not just to a paying job with the government.

  4. Reader

    I don’t really care so much about the nepotism law’s letter as its intent, which I read to be ensuring that there are not special channels to people with power. That’s well-intentioned but it has had the effect of forcing Walt into an ill-defined, unofficial role without any check of public accountability.

    Keenan has Walt’s e-mail records because Walt was doing it on the state’s dime when Keenan raised a stink about his work during the transition. It’s perfectly possible to see what he was up to at that time. That’s how it should be. Keenan used the nepotism law to score political points and sent Walt to the shadows but that’s not going to diminish his influence, just make it tough to find out what he’s up to. So, in a sense, Bob created the shadow creature he wants to slay.

    That said, the governor and his brother need to smarten up about this. There is a strong tradition of disclosure in Montana and, if there’s nothing to hide, then Walt ought not act so combatively toward people asking questions. This might well have been a neutral to favorable profile with a big picture of him and the guv in brotherly arms on the cover and not just a forum for critics–many of whom (including the PSC commissioner Raney who was a big source) seem to think of themselves as allies of the governor though certainly a few wouldn’t look at themselves that way.

    If everything is kosher here then the way this has been handled so far does not demonstrate the best political sense. I wonder if Raney has heard from the governor about his comments?

  5. rich

    i’m sorry but this piece stinks of political mudslinging.nepotism is deadbeat relatives on the state payroll not earning there keep.special channels to people in power [burns-abramoff] is bribery. so pushy walter is brian ‘s eyes and ears. has he done anything illegal nothing in the piece states any actual instances that i read. when i read keenan thinking of running for gov, and olson piping in the lite bulb lited as connie might say.thanks

  6. yeah, this isn’t breaking the spirit of the law. Simply a brother seeking guidance and council in his sibling. It part of our family support structure in this country. It is a perfectly natural occurrence.

  7. Steven Lohrenz

    The nepotism laws are to keep people in power from giving relatives jobs on the taxpayer dime.

    The lobbying and anti-bribery laws are the ones that are supposed to remove special channels to the people in power. Is Walt a lobbyist? Should he be considered such? Is he trading favors with the governor? It hardly seems like it.

    But an advisor to the governor who is, as far as we know right now, voluntering his time to help out his brother, is what exactly? Patriotic? Noble? If he is getting help from his brother to live or if he is self supporting, is there even a conflict of interest?

    That he has to remain in the shadows just seems like a weird effect of the nepotism laws and the outing that was made by Keenan.

    I have to agree that ultimately, the Governor is responsible for policy decisions. But the question still remains as to where Walt is getting his money and that will determine whether this is a scandal or not. But no nepotism laws are being broken nor is there any hint of lobbying impropriety so at this point it doesn’t seem all that controversial.

  8. Congratulations to Adams and the Indy for keeping the spirit of independent journalism alive.

  9. Ed Kemmick

    I don’t see how you can try to unload this thing on Keenan without acknowledging the sources of the strongest criticism in the article—lifelong Democrat Bob Raney and environmentalist Ann Hedges. Are they lying or did the reporter misquote them? If they said what they said, we should all be worried. You’re whistling past the graveyard.

  10. Well, I don’t think I or Reader “unloaded” on Keenan, but Reader has a point, Keenan did push Walter into the shadows. I don’t have a problem with a relative being actively involved with creating policy, but I do think if they are, we should see what they’re doing.

    Where’s the money? Who’s he talking to? Who does he represent?

  11. Could be worse, I suppose; it could be Leroy.

    (I kid, I kid.)

  1. 1 Open thread: Walter Schweitzer « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] John Adams: “The Walter Ego” […]

  2. 2 Larry Kralj, Ochenski, and the Governor’s brother « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Now you know where I stand on Adams’ accusations. I don’t have a problem with Walter Schweitzer, I don’t have a problem with a strong arm in the Governor’s office, and I think that maybe the problem here is Montana’s nepotism law that forces Walter to stay off the official record. […]

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