Montana, you’ve got the wrong guy

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The way Montana is going after Phil Baker, you’d think somebody from Big Sky Country had presidential aspirations.

Oh — wait. It just so happens that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, now midway through his second term, is rumored to consider himself a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

Sorry if it seems we’re grasping for silver straws here, but by declaring Baker a “bad actor,” Montana is raising more questions about its leadership than that of Hecla Mining’s CEO. Might a Democratic resumé look a little more lustrous if it includes taking down the current chairman of the National Mining Association’s board of directors? Because frankly, pinning all the sins of a defunct company on Baker just doesn’t add up.

Here’s what’s happening:

A coalition of conservation groups petitioned Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality to enforce the state’s “bad actor” laws against Baker and Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla Mining. The group’s objective was to stop planned mining projects in northwestern Montana, regardless of Hecla’s outstanding reputation and that of its leader since 2003. Yet Montana’s decision-makers, including Gov. Bullock, appear to be taking the bait.

The state’s argument is that as one-time chief financial officer for Pegasus Gold Inc., Baker alone should be held accountable for some $30 million in cleanup costs created when Pegasus went out of business and abandoned its mines in the late 1990s. There are, however, some problems with that blame game.

Baker was never a principal or even a controlling member of Pegasus, which is a requirement of being deemed a “bad actor” and owing recompense under Montana law. He wasn’t even working for the company when Pegasus filed for Chapter 11 reorganization on Jan. 16, 1998. One year later, and long after Baker had quit the company, Pegasus converted its reorganization to Chapter 7 bankruptcy, or liquidation. Whoever was calling the shots then, it sure wasn’t Phil Baker.

These material facts have been presented to and ignored by Montana officials, who are correct in trying to find the responsible party to pay back the state for mining cleanup but dead wrong in trying to forge those chains around Baker’s and Hecla’s necks. They don’t care that they’ve got the wrong man because, apparently, they think they can squeeze millions out of Baker and kick the mining industry along the way.

Bad actor? Not Phil Baker, an industry leader and ethical practitioner whose character is respected everywhere outside the Helena capitol building and maybe an isolated union office.

Good actors? That would be Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and his henchmen, who deserve Academy Awards for pretending to be responsible public officials.

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