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Montana State University-Bozeman will use money from its taxpayer-supported general fund to pay ex-Navy SEAL Rob O’Neill’s $28,000 speaking fee, a university spokesperson said Tuesday.

The university canceled the engagement, scheduled Monday, due to “unforeseen circumstances” after O’Neill was booked for a first-offense misdemeanor driving under the influence charge early Friday in Butte.

Tracy Ellig, MSU executive director of university communications, told The Standard the university reached out to veterans’ and student leadership groups before deciding to cancel the talk. The university concluded that O’Neill’s arrest would overshadow the speech, which was on leadership.

Butte police say they found O’Neill asleep behind the wheel of a parked car, with the engine running at the Town Pump, Montana and Platinum, about 2:30 a.m. Friday. O’Neill reportedly told police he may have taken Ambien, a prescription medication for insomnia and may have had a drink. According to police reports, O’Neill appeared confused and failed a sobriety test.

O’Neill denied the charge at his initial appearance Friday.

MSU says it’s following contract obligations.

“The contract stipulated that should the university cancel for any reason the fee was still to be paid. MSU is honoring its agreement with Mr. O’Neill,” Ellig said via email.

O’Neill’s speech for Monday’s MSU presentation had been titled, “Never Quit: The Story of a Life Built on Successful Missions.”

A spokesman for O’Neill’s international booking agent, Leading Authorities, based in Washington, D.C. says the university didn’t ask for a refund.

“MSU … in fact told us at the time of cancellation that out of respect for Rob’s service to our nation, they would honor the financial obligation and perhaps invite Rob back at some time in the future, which of course Rob would be happy to do,” said Matthew Jones, Leading Authorities chief operating officer, via email.

The money for O’Neill’s fee will come out of the university’s general fund, Ellig said.

“We didn’t anticipate this. It’s not an insignificant amount,” Ellig said.

The original plan was that at least a portion of the fee would come from ticket sales. Student tickets were $10, with general admission at $20 per ticket. About 1,000 tickets were sold. Ticket-holders will receive refunds.

O’Neill made a name for himself when he revealed two years ago that he shot Osama bin Laden during a U.S. attack. The story gained him notoriety, but also caused controversy. The Naval Criminal Investigation Service looked into whether he had disclosed classified information and some of his former Navy SEAL colleagues have questioned the accuracy of his story. The Pentagon has previously said it’s not clear who shot bin Laden.

Although the DUI arrest occurred early Friday, the next night, O’Neill celebrated his 40th birthday at a public party Saturday at The Depot, 818 S. Arizona St.

Calls to O’Neill’s public relations firm were not returned by press time Tuesday.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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