The case of Rodney Robert Smith hardly seems worthy of the special treatment and attention lavished on it by the office of the Montana Attorney General.
But since AG Austin Knudsen has taken the astonishing step of taking over a local assault case after ordering a county attorney to dismiss charges, it's fair to ask why.
A quick reprise of the facts, as presented in Montana State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels' excellent story Tuesday:
Smith was charged with felony assault with a weapon, misdemeanor assault, and misdemeanor counts of carrying a weapon in a prohibited place and without a permit by the Lewis and Clark County Attorney's Office.
After employees at a Helena restaurant repeatedly told Smith last November that he needed to wear a face mask, as per the state law in place at the time, Smith allegedly shoved a restaurant employee. After restaurant employees tried to restrain him, Smith is accused of hitting an employee in the genitals several times and then pinning that staff member to the wall. Then, according to the charges, Smith exposed a handgun he had on a holster in his waistband. According to an affidavit filed in District Court, he "patted it with his hand and made a statement (to an employee) to the effect of 'I'm going to get you.'"
Smith's attorney, Palmer Hoovestal, told the Associated Press that the handgun part of the reported incident "didn't happen" and that he has witnesses who say that a restaurant employee initiated the altercation.
Smith has pleaded not guilty to the charges. A trial was set for the end of this month, but in the meantime, the county attorney, Leo Gallagher, received a July 26 letter from Knudsen's office, citing the AG's statutory authority over county attorneys and ordering him to deliver all the files in the Smith case to the AG's office and to "take no action" in the case "without first consulting the Department of Justice."
When Gallagher contacted the AG's office early this month, saying as per instruction he had done nothing yet to prepare for Smith's trial, he was ultimately informed that the AG's office had completed a review of the case, and then he was ordered to dismiss the gun-related charges against Smith.
Gallagher replied that he "cannot in good conscience move to dismiss these counts and comply with my oath of office." He then asked that the Department of Justice assume the case.
The Attorney General's Office told Gallagher he was free to prosecute if he wished on the other counts.
But Hoovestal has told the court that he and the Attorney General's Office are "engaged in settlement negotiations. It is anticipated that these settlement negotiations will be successful and that a trial will be unnecessary."
What seems unnecessary is for Knudsen to have taken over what is clearly a case normally handled by a county attorney.
It also seems outrageous on its face.
Leo Gallagher is the epitome of a competent county attorney. He says he's never seen anything like this since he started practicing law in 1978. We're not surprised. Neither have we.
Court documents suggest this is an assault case that richly deserves to be prosecuted. Why would an attorney general swoop in, order dismissals, take over the case and begin settlement negotiations?
Attorney General Knudsen seems like he's not sure if he wants to be a county attorney (as he once was) or perhaps the U.S. Secretary of Energy. His office recently sent out a press release with the headline "AG Knudsen slams White House's call for OPEC+ countries to produce more oil." Which does not seem to be the province of the Montana Attorney General.
On August 3, we also received a press release from a Virginia-based public relations firm known to represent high-profile right-wing clients, telling us that "Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen is again leading the charge in defense of Americans' right to keep and bear arms against federal overreach."
It went on to say that Knudsen has filed an amicus brief, with the support of 17 other state attorneys general, seeking to overturn an ATF ban on bump-stock accessories.
Bump stocks are mechanisms that modify semiautomatic weapons so they may fire repeatedly while the trigger is depressed. Stephen Paddock used one when he killed 58 people in Las Vegas.
Everybody in Montana needs one of those to hunt elk in the spirit of fair chase, right?
The fact that Knudsen is "leading the charge" on this matter does not give us much confidence that he is actually working in the best interests of Montanans.
What all of this spells is that Knudsen is obsessed with being Montana's Culture Warrior General. Montanans didn't elect him to do that.
The "overreach" here is on the part of the attorney general, who urgently needs to refocus his time and effort on state government.