Montana Supreme Court upholds firing of former state tourism director

HELENA, Mont. – The Montana Supreme Court has upheld the 2010 dismissal of a former state tourism director who was fired because the agency said she didn’t spend millions of dollars meant to promote tourism and filmmaking in the state.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Baumgart was unsuccessful in arguing that her firing as administrator of the Montana Tourism and Promotion Division was motivated by politics, not the agency’s bottom line.

Baumgart was appointed tourism director in 2002 by then-Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican. She served in the role for eight years until Commerce Director Tony Preite retired. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, appointed Dore Schwinden to the post. About three weeks later, in August 2010, he fired Baumgart, citing several reasons including that she did not understand the budgeting process.

The agency said Baumgart left millions of dollars unspent each year, opening the possibility that the Legislature would revert that money to the state general fund.

She filed a grievance. A hearing officer found the agency was justified in discharging Baumgart for failure to adequately manage the budget, but rejected four other reasons that state listed.

Baumgart filed a lawsuit arguing she was fired without just cause, was politically discriminated against and that the agency violated her privacy rights and defamed her by providing confidential employment-termination documents to a newspaper.

A District Court judge granted the state’s motions for summary judgment on the political discrimination and illegal firing claims.

Baumgart’s attorney, Michael San Souci, said a jury should be allowed to decide whether the state had just cause to fire Baumgart.

The Supreme Court, in a 4-2 decision filed Tuesday, upheld the District Court rulings. Justice Patricia Cotter wrote that the Commerce Department “presented direct evidence that Baumgart failed to appropriately manage her budget.”

In dissent, Justice Jim Rice said the issue is not that clear and Baumgart should be able to raise her arguments, including that no other division head had ever been fired for maintaining a budget surplus.

“I believe that this evidence raises an issue of fact as to whether Baumgart was actually fired for maintaining a budget surplus, and whether this reason would constitute good cause in any event,” Rice wrote.

Only in the world of government-agency budgeting “could an employee who is performing with excellence, achieving great results, and winning national awards be discharged because she had not spent enough of the government’s money to do so,” he wrote. Justice Laurie McKinnon joined Rice’s dissent.

“Obviously we were disappointed with the outcome and felt that the dissenting opinion was more in line with our position,” attorney Michael J. San Souci said Wednesday. “On the other hand, my client still has two surviving claims for defamation and invasion of privacy, which we will now continue to pursue in the District Court.”