HELENA — Former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams told a legislative panel Wednesday the New York Times didn’t misquote him but that his comments have been taken out of context by those who think he used the word “thugs” to refer to the entire University of Montana football team.
That was not the case, Williams told the Senate Education Committee. He said the reporter asked him specifically about six student-athletes who had been accused of various crimes and been expelled, not the entire football team.
“How is it some people can read that and say he’s talking about the whole team?” Williams asked at the hearing.
Before a packed hearing room, and with a gallery mostly full of spectators, the committee took up a confirmation hearing on the nomination of Williams and two regents appointed by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Besides Williams, of Missoula, the others up for confirmation were Jeffrey Krauss of Bozeman, and Joseph Thiel, the student regent who attends Montana State University.
While some of the discussion centered on educational issues — with a host of people praising the nine-term congressman’s education credentials as unrivaled — it was his controversial comments in the New York Times in February that dominated much of the hearing.
Those supporting Williams outnumbered those opposing his nomination by 16-5. Organizers of petition drives in support of his nomination said they had collected far more signatures in support of him than opponents had against him.
However, two people opposing Williams’ nomination had worked as congressional staffers for him. Both said they were troubled by his comments.
In his introductory remarks, Williams said despite what people are saying on Facebook, he did not call the New York Times, but the Times reporter called him.
“The reporter from the New York Times never asked me about the team, coaches, athletic directors,” Williams said. “He asked me about six players who have been accused of assault, burglary, beatings, drug use, DUI and rape. And I called them what I called them — those few students. Now some misunderstood the context of the story, but I didn’t write the story.”
The Times quoted Williams as saying: “We’ve had sex assaults, vandalism, beatings by football players. The university has recruited thugs for its football team, and this thuggery has got to stop.”
Later, Williams said it would have been malfeasance if the regents hadn’t addressed the crimes committed by the handful of student-athletes.
One supporter, Brian Kahn, a Helena attorney and public-affairs radio host, praised Williams for standing up and doing what he has done to support University of Montana President Royce Engstrom’s effort to “clean up the mess.”
“Williams has shown the courage to stand up for what’s right,” Kahn said. “It would have been a heck of a lot easier to keep silent. We need that kind of courage and integrity on the Board of Regents.”
Speaking for herself and a dozen other former members of Williams’ congressional staff, Helen Christensen said Williams is principled, honest, forthright, courageous, frank, blunt, thoughtful and someone who doesn’t mince words.
“Montana’s fortunate to have outstanding regents,” she said. “He has the respect of the other regents.”
Speaking against Williams’ nomination was Jim Foley, who resigned last year as UM’s vice president for external relations during the turmoil when the university was dealing with the arrests of some football players.
Foley, who was once Williams’ congressional chief of staff, criticized the regent’s comments in the national newspaper.
“The statements made in there by my friend Pat, in my judgment, were callous and injurious, both to the citizens of this state and to the thousands of UM student athletes and UM alumni around this country,” Foley said. “In my view, none of it was necessary, and the timing, in my judgment, made it a bit more harmful.”
Foley added, “Enough is enough with this name-calling against young men who in most cases can’t defend themselves against words.”
Patrick Duffy, a former staffer, called the former congressman’s comments unfair, not objective and insulting.
“Pat is certainly entitled to hold that view, but if that is his general view, he is not entitled to serve on the Board of Regents,” Duffy said.
The panel is expected to vote on the confirmations next week.