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NEW: The 9th Circuit Spotlights a Presidential Candidate’s Hostile Workplace

by Matthew Monforton Read Profile arrow_right_alt

Steve Bullock’s presidential campaign rollout two weeks ago hit a clinker when Bullock tried to identify his biggest accomplishment during his two terms as Montana’s Democratic governor. 

But he has learned the hard way that there are even worse responses than sixteen seconds of awkward silence. Like the responses he gave during a press conference days after Lt. Gov. Angela McLean abruptly resigned without explanation in November 2015.

“THERE’S SOMETHING ELSE THERE”

Bullock insisted the day after McLean’s resignation that she had not been forced out to make way a new running mate for the 2016 election. But, as shown below, internal emails released months later showed Bullock was lying. The more important question was why Bullock coerced his female lieutenant governor to resign in the first place.

He wouldn’t give a forthright answer during that 2015 press conference, despite prodding from David McCumber, the editor-in-chief of the Montana Standard, who asked him why McLean had suddenly hit the road: “I’m still curious to know how things broke down so severely between you and Lt. Gov. McLean.”  Bullock replied, “it wasn’t that good a fit….I think this kind of ground has been covered.” McCumber wasn’t impressed:

McCumber:  I’m looking for more.  I’m curious to know where did it breakdown? Where did you see the relationship breakdown?

Bullock: Well. You know.  It’s been reported out.  Good conversations. You can read the articles.  In some respects, this happens often in business and other places. That’s ground that I think we’ve plowed.

McCumber: There’s a gap.  There’s obviously a gap between [McLean’s] account of what took place and the fact that you felt her frustration was disruptive. There’s something else there….

The press forced the governor’s office to release some internal emails pursuant to Montana’s public records statutes, but none of them explained what that “something else” was, nor did McCumber or any other reporter subsequently press the issue. (though h/t to Montana Free Press for at least archiving the emails).

HOSTILE WORKPLACES CAN RESULT FROM PERKS RATHER THAN HARASSMENT

That “something else” turned out to be a hostile workplace spawned by the Governor and sustained by the darkness that descends when government staffers, journalists, and opposition party members choose to appease power rather than pursue principles.

But it wasn’t the usual hostile workplace involving a CEO assaulting female subordinates. Bullock is no Harvey Weinstein. He was the freshman class president and later student body president of Helena High School who never lost his mojo – particularly with the ladies. That was evident in 1987 to all of us in the freshman class at Claremont McKenna College where Bullock, then a senior, was again the student body president.  It has been evident ever since.

After Bullock appointed her as lieutenant governor in February 2014, McLean would eventually learn the answer to a question legal scholars have long debated: can a workplace be “hostile” if a male executive scores with subordinates by being a chick magnet rather than a predator? Since 1990, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said “yes”:

Managers who engage in widespread sexual favoritism may also communicate a message that the way for women to get ahead in the workplace is by engaging in sexual conduct or that sexual solicitations are a prerequisite to their fair treatment.  This can form the basis of an implicit “quid pro quo” harassment claim for female employees, as well as a hostile environment claim for both women and men who find this offensive

Courts are increasingly adopting this rule.  Ironically, lawsuits alleging sexual favoritism were embraced in 2015 by the highest level of Montana’s judicial branch when, two blocks away, the highest level of Montana’s executive branch was roiling behind closed doors from a sexual-favoritism scandal.

A GOVERNOR’S OFFICE WITH SPECIAL PERKS FOR SPECIAL STAFF

Bullock’s office has long been beset with sexual favoritism.  Take, for example, Meg O’Leary, Bullock’s former Director of Commerce. Flight logs for the governor’s plane (h/t to KGVO radio in Missoula) show that the Governor treated O’Leary, a fellow graduate of Helena High School, as more than just another cabinet officer.  Of Bullock’s cabinet officers, O’Leary was by far the plane’s most frequent flier, racking up 56 flights – nearly three times as many as the next highest cabinet officer.

Two flights particularly raised eyebrows. One occurred during a Paul McCartney concert held at the University of Montana in Missoula in August 2014.  The University’s president invited Bullock to the concert and the original names on the box seats were for Bullock and Montana’s First Lady. But it was Bullock and O’Leary who attended – and they got there via the state plane.  Jon King, a reporter for KGVO, asked Bullock’s office to explain why O’Leary was on the taxpayer-financed flight but received no response.

Another involved an early morning flight to Missoula by Bullock and O’Leary on April 29, 2015.  Two days later, the two were spotted at the Kentucky Derby.

Free flights and a front-row seat at what was one of Montana’s biggest concert events were quite the job perks – perks that were not hidden from other members of the Governor’s staff.

Representative Brad Tschida (R-Missoula), the majority leader of the Montana House of Representatives, was troubled enough by this misuse of state resources to file an ethics complaint against Bullock and O’Leary. Bullock’s commissioner of political practices tried suppressing the complaint. When Tschida responded by providing copies of the complaint to other Montana legislators, the commissioner threatened him with criminal prosecution. Tschida sued in federal court to protect himself from this thuggish attempt to gag a critic of Bullock. (full disclosure: I’ve been representing Tschida in his lawsuit). Earlier today, the Ninth Circuit held that Tschida had a First Amendment right to publicly disclose the ethics complaint he filed against Bullock and O’Leary.

Tschida learned that Helena’s Camelot brooks no criticism – particularly when it comes to the King’s prerogatives. As shown below, McLean would learn that same lesson, too.

A DEMAND FOR DECORUM

McLean was a starry-eyed newcomer to politics when Bullock appointed her in February 2014, having spent much of her prior career teaching at Anaconda High School.  She responded to the appointment by showering Bullock with praise, both publicly and privately, even exulting him in an email in November 2014 as “the greatest Governor Ever in the Milky Way!” (see p. 120). McLean was Bullock’s most vibrant champion.

Until one day, she wasn’t.

McLean described to several persons what she had observed on that particular day in late November 2014.  Two of them told me what she described. 

McLean and several staff members joined Bullock one evening at Lindey’s Steakhouse in Seeley Lake, Montana, about a hundred miles west of Helena.  They later left Lindey’s – all except Bullock and a female state official. 

Shortly after leaving, McLean realized she had forgotten to pay for her drinks. She returned to Lindey’s and, upon entering, observed Bullock groping the female state official, who was seated on his lap.

I reached out to McLean as well as the Bullock campaign for comment on this story. Neither offered any. Two sources, however, independently confirmed that McLean had informed them of Bullock’s misconduct.

“EITHER YOU ARE ON THE TEAM OR YOU ARE NOT”

McLean confronted Bullock in December 2014 about the impropriety of what she saw.  Bullock told her to pound sand.

You don’t have to read the internal emails written after December 2014 to guess how this played out – or to understand how an executive who charms subordinates for sex can poison an office as effectively as a predator can.

Office-wide shunning of McLean appears to have begun shortly after December 2014. “I feel I have been and continue to be an incredible asset,” McLean pleaded in January 2015 in an email to Bullock, a clear indication that she was already being pushed aside. (see p. 3)

In May 2015, McLean told Bullock that his chief of staff “confirmed for me this morning that you are indeed considering a different running mate [for 2016].” (see p. 47). She also identified the source of the turmoil:

From what I understand this goes back to our conversation in December. I am deeply saddened that you weren’t able to bring this conversation to me personally. I have been a remarkable ambassador for your brand and have worked hard to energize folks around the state. I guess I am learning ambition is a funny thing and realizing the full consequences of standing up for what you believe is right. It really is the hardest thing.

McLean continued standing up to Bullock and told him a day later that “if you are visiting with folks [about becoming lieutenant governor] they [need to] know that I will not be leaving the post until the term is up.” (see p. 46)

Bullock’s subtle attempts to persuade McLean to resign had failed.

Nevertheless, he persisted.

In September 2015, McLean emailed Bullock about how Dan Villa, Bullock’s budget director, “had distanced himself this past winter” from McLean. (see p. 79). Villa told her that “either you are on the team or you are not.” (see p. 79.)  McLean then told Bullock that “I am deeply concerned about the environment in which I am expected to work.” (see p. 79).

A few weeks later, McLean again emphasized that the retaliation she was enduring resulted from confronting Bullock in December 2014:

I believe that the comments made by the Budget Director to me are indicative of the atmosphere that has existed since our private conversation last December. Being told that I have my portfolio and he has his portfolio and the two do not intersect as well as hearing that I created sides with my December conversation were deeply troubling. (see p. 80)

Bullock’s underlings made clear to McLean that she wouldn’t have to worry for much longer about whether her portfolio intersected others’ portfolio:

In an email to you last week I indicated that Dave Parker in a phone call to me last Thursday evening asked me to imagine a workplace where, if I stayed in my post but the Governor took away my initiatives (SMART schools and STEM) and my ability to serve the citizens of Montana. (see p. 105).

By November 2015, McLean decided enough was enough and resigned.

ARE DEMOCRATS DONE WITH #METOO?

King David repented when Nathan confronted him.  Bullock doubled down when McLean confronted him – leading to a disruption at the highest level of state government and rendering him unfit for public office, particularly the presidency.

This saga also demonstrates what a fraud the Montana GOP has become.  Recently, Republicans in Alabama and Missouri have shown GOP governors the door upon learning of their sexual misconduct. The MTGOP leadership could have forced Bullock’s misconduct to the surface when Greg Gianforte challenged Bullock in 2016.  Gianforte is running again for election as governor in 2020, but could well have been running for re-election had his party mustered the courage to confront Bullock 

Instead, a third of the MTGOP’s legislative caucus joined the Democratic minority in the Montana Legislature this spring to pass nearly every bill supported by Bullock, as he touts in his Iowa messaging. As I’ve said throughout the year, when one member of the GOP’s legislative caucus routinely defects on major bills, the caucus has a problem. But when 1/3 of the caucus does so, the entire Party has a problem. The MTGOP’s cowardice in 2016 ensured Bullock’s re-election as governor.  And its betrayal of conservatives this year may help send Bullock to the White House.

Unless, of course, the #MeToo movement still has some juice. That’s questionable.  The Democrats’ front runner has been tagged in decades of creepy videos unbecoming a Vice President of the United States.  The Democrats’ Lt. Gov. in Virginia stands credibly accused of rape but is at no risk of being booted.

Then there’s Bullock.  Along with the malevolence he unleashed upon McLean for a year after she spoke truth to power, there’s the issue of him sending one of his long-time aides, Kevin O’Brien, to work for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio while forgetting to mention to de Blasio that O’Brien was a sexual predator.  As I mentioned a few months ago, O’Brien’s transfer to New York came after Bullock exiled him from Helena to the D.C. office of the Democratic Governors Association. Bullock did that in December 2014, the same time that McLean confronted him on his public cavorting.

Until two weeks ago, Bullock’s campaigning had always been confined to Montana – where he could rely on the state’s zombie press corps and fake “Republicans” to ignore his very personal touches upon his office’s employee benefits program.  But now as a presidential candidate, Bullock is swimming in (supposedly) the shark tank of American journalism. Will it matter? Will any of the non-Montana reporters now covering Bullock ask him why, exactly, “it wasn’t that good a fit” between him and McLean? Seems like a pertinent question given that (1) the selection of a running mate is the most important decision a presidential nominee makes, (2) Bullock’s prior selection of a running mate didn’t end well and, before that (3) Bullock’s selection of John Walsh as his original running mate in 2012 didn’t end well, either, after Bullock subsequently appointed Walsh to a vacant Senate seat.

Another question that actual reporters might want to ask Bullock is what was said during that meeting in December 2014 – the one McLean repeatedly referenced as the reason for the retaliation and eventual ouster she suffered. Or has the media’s obsession with the #MeToo movement abated now that too many Democrats are being ensnared by it?  The 2020 Democratic primary may soon offer some answers.

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