HELENA — Montana's wildlife agency broke ethics laws by allowing the Montana Trappers Association to use state equipment to campaign against an anti-trapping ballot initiative in 2014, the state commissioner of political practices ruled Wednesday.
Commissioner Jonathan Motl's ruling raised concerns about the relationship between Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the trappers association that led to the association's use of an FWP trailer and displays of furbearing animals to political purposes.
That close relationship, without a clear policy forbidding the use of state equipment for political advocacy, makes it inevitable that public resources would be used to support the association's political campaign, Motl wrote.
"Indeed, that is exactly what happened," Motl wrote.
Motl fined FWP $1,500, which is $500 for each violation that the commissioner's hearing officer found.
FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said the agency would contest the commissioner's decision in court.
Montana's ethics code says a public officer or employee may not use public time, facility, equipment, supplies, personnel or funds to solicit support for or against a candidate, political committee or ballot issue.
Hearing officer Jamie McNaughton, who is a staff attorney for the commissioner of political practices, found FWP violated that code three times when the trappers association used the trailer and displays at three events in western Montana in May and June of 2014.
At those events in Hamilton and Missoula, the association advocated against a proposed ballot initiative that would have banned trapping on public lands in the state. The initiative failed to get on the ballot that year, and voters rejected a similar ballot measure earlier this month.
FWP officials argued that because none of its employees attended the events, the agency did not violate the law. McNaughton said that reasoning leads to an "absurd result" that would permit state employees to simply allow private individuals to use public resources for political activity.
"Public officers and employees have a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent the private use of public resources for political advocacy purposes," McNaughton wrote.
FWP had no agreement in place with the trappers association on use of the trailer and displays, despite the association regularly using both since 1996 as part of its educational and public outreach program.
After FWP received complaints about the trappers association's use of its equipment in the spring of 2014, the state agency changed its policy to require private organizations to sign an agreement before using state equipment. The agreement said the borrower would not use the property for campaign purposes.
The trappers association refused to sign the agreement and the group has not used the trailer and displays since January 2015.
Trappers association president Toby Walrath did not return a call for comment.
Trap Free Montana Public Lands, the sponsor of the 2014 anti-trapping ballot measure, filed the ethics complaint against FWP. The group's spokeswoman, K.C. York, said the trappers association's use of state equipment likely damaged her organization's signature-gathering effort.
"For years, the relationship with the trappers and FWP has been deep and pervasive," York said. "To allow one small user group to influence them to this extent, it's not necessarily in the best interest of the whole public."
Aasheim said he doesn't see the agency's relationship with the trappers association changing.
"We need to be partners with that group and improve our relationship," Aasheim said. "We don't blame them."