What makes it okay to deport Audemio Orozco-Ramirez?

Supporters of Orozco-Ramirez march in downtown Billings.

In 2013, Audemio Orozco-Ramirez with the passenger in a traffic stop in Jefferson County, Montana. At that time, he had been living in the United States approximately 16 years. Orozco-Ramirez was born in Michoacan, Mexico. He has no criminal record, but the officer of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s department who stopped the car he was riding in suspected that he was in the country illegally, in part because he did not speak English. Orozco-Ramirez was arrested on a civil immigration violation and placed in a county jail sell with nine other men.

During a period of time that went missing from the jail’s otherwise continuous surveillance footage, a number of these men held down Orozco-Ramirez and raped him. In December, Jefferson County settled a federal lawsuit filed by Orozco-Ramirez for $125,000 without admitting that he was assaulted or it was liable. Since then, he has lived and worked outside Billings, checking in with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents on a monthly basis. During his last check-in, he was arrested and scheduled for deportation.

An appeals court judge has issued a stay against that decision pending a hearing. The feds frequently issue “U visas” to foreign nationals who are the victims of crimes and have aided authorities in their investigations, but in settling Orozco-Ramirez’s lawsuit, Jefferson County did not admit he was a victim of a crime. Legally, we can deport him. The question of whether we can do so ethically is more complicated.

Except for crossing the border illegally 20 years ago, Orozco-Ramirez has participated in the social contract. Our state and federal governments, on the other hand, have betrayed him multiple times. For example, there was the time we investigated him for civil violations as the passenger in a traffic stop. That doesn’t happen to Americans who enjoy constitutional rights. There was also the time we locked him in a cell full of rapists, also for a civil violation, and stopped watching what happened. Then there was the time we made a deal with him to forget about the rape thing and then picked him up for deportation while he was upholding his end of the bargain.

No American would agree that is the right way for a government to treat the people it governs. Yet because Orozco-Ramirez is not a citizen but merely a person who has lived here for the last 20 years, anything we do to him is fine. That’s a peculiar moral calculus, and you can read all about in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Even after hot mic snafu, PSC regulates solar out of business

I’ve been thinking about this joke for 20 years, and it’s the word “yearned.”

Let’s say you run a state regulatory agency tasked with setting rates and contracts for utility companies, such as the Montana Public Service Commission. Let us also say part of your mandate is to promote renewable energy. This isn’t just your general sense of what the public wants you do to; it’s federal law, mandated by the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978. Anyway, let’s say that despite this mandate, you secretly plan to use your regulatory power to increase profits for established utility companies and keep stuff like solar power out of the market. People have accused you of pursing this agenda before, but you denied it. Then, a hot mic accidentally records you talking about how to set rates so low it puts solar farms out of business.

You cannot go ahead and do it, right? You got caught planning to do something deeply unethical and federally illegal, and the only thing to do now is abort the plan. You certainly cannot set rates for solar farms so far below market that they cease to be viable businesses. People are on to you. And yet Commissioner Bob Lake did exactly that. In June, a hot mic caught him talking to rate analyst Neil Templeton about the threat of solar power. Templeton opines that “just dropping the rate probably took care of the whole thing.” Lake replies, “Well, the 10-year might do it if the price doesn’t. And at this low price, I can’t imagine anyone getting into it.”

That’s it! You made a recording of your criminal conspiracy, and now it is over. Yet somehow, last month, the PSC set the rates for the proposed MTSUN solar farm outside Billings at $20 per megawatt-hour over a ten-year contract. Compare to the residential supply rate the commission set for NorthWestern Energy: $62 per megawatt-hour over the next 25 years. MTSUN developer Mark Klein confirmed that his solar project would be unworkable under those terms.

I applaud this bold act of regulatory capture and welcome the PSC to our long war against the sun. My only concern is that it will come up again somehow. Still, I praise Lake and his colleagues for sheer brazenness. Montana ratepayers could have no stauncher ally in the fight against cheap electricity from dubious sources. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Steve Daines takes bold stand against methamphetamine

“The way I see it, heaven is a big, dark cave, and you can climb all over the walls and ceiling…”

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: American politics have come to a bitter pass, and what one voter holds dear is likely to enrage another. In these fractious times, Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) is doing what he can to bring the country together by standing up for what people still agree on. Last month, he celebrated Flag Day by proposing a constitutional amendment to ban the desecration of Old Glory. That probably cost him some votes in Tehran, but it seemed like a safe move otherwise. He followed it up with an editorial in the Missoulian and other Lee papers last week, in which he spoke out against methamphetamine. Beginning by noting that 95% of participants in his recent telephone town hall agree meth is a problem, he argues for 500 words that meth is, indeed, a problem. He concludes by saying that now is the time to raise awareness.

I suppose that last 5% of awareness is always the hardest. Still, one cannot help but think of other issues Sen. Daines might address, including the massive, secret, and extremely controversial health care bill his caucus is currently trying to ram through the senate. That bill might be why Daines keeps holding telephone town halls instead of regular ones. He hasn’t been back to Montana in a minute, and he lobbied to cancel the August recess. With all the flags-are-good and drugs-are-bad rhetoric coming out of his office right now, he’s starting to look like he might be trying to duck the issue. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll probably be talking about Daines more in the near future, since he introduced that single-payer amendment he doesn’t actually support. Start working on your goblin jokes, and we’ll meet back here tomorrow for Friday links.

In $3.6 million Merc giveaway, MRA is poor negotiator

The Marriott hotel envisioned on the site of the former Missoula Mercantile building

Residents of Missoula and its partisans abroad know about the years-long saga that is the Mercantile. A Macy’s as recently as 2011, the historic downtown building sat vacant for six years, thwarting various development plans until HomeBase Montana offered to knock it down and build a Marriott in its place. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission denied that permit, in what might politely be called a complex process. The city overruled the committee, and HomeBase demolished the Merc in April. Then, at the end of June, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency voted to give the project $3.6 million in tax increment financing.

It was not a bailout. Most of the TIF money reimbursed the developers for stages of the project that had already happened: $1.5 million for “deconstructing” the building by reclaiming its materials instead of demolishing it outright, $336k for preserving the old pharmacy, and $150k in reimbursements for asbestos removal. All these were conditions of the original deal, which HomeBase had already met without running into cash-flow problems. Any suspicion that the project might need our $3.6 million to survive was erased by developer Andy Holloran, who told the Missoulian the hotel would generate more property tax revenue than expected because developers had “added $5 million more to the total project costs, including 27 more rooms than the original design.”

What, then, did the city of Missoula get for its $3.6 million? The things we bought—deconstruction, asbestos abatement, the pharmacy, and a guarantee the project would move forward—were already ours. This TIF money neither extracted concessions from the developers nor saved the project. So is the MRA saying that paying $3.6 million to expand the project was a wise investment, because a bigger hotel will generate more tax revenue? If so, that’s a new vision of the agency’s function. Historically, the MRA has acted to encourage new development projects, not invested in ones that were already underway.

A lot of public money went to a private business venture in this deal. Given how little the public seems to have gotten, its worthwhile to ask in whose interest the MRA negotiated. Reimbursing developers for what they agreed to do on their own dime does not strike me as sharp dealing. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Valerie Stamey returns, clothed in righteous fire

Former Ravalli County Treasurer and missing person Valerie Stamey

It’s been over a year since the last time we heard from Valerie Stamey. Last May, we got the headline Former County Treasurer Found and Served, which pretty much tells you what you need to know about my favorite story in Montana politics. Stamey was appointed treasurer on a 3-2 vote by Ravalli County commissioners in 2013. She served about eight months before she was suspended in June 2014. During her tenure, the office filed no monthly reports and the fire department ran out of money. After she left, investigators found $780,000 in undeposited checks lying around her office. The county estimates it spent around six figures putting the office of the treasurer back in order after she left. Stamey was found guilty of official misconduct and fined in absentia, but by that time, she was gone. Her husband told reporters she was in a different state, but he wouldn’t say which. Process servers who hoped to find her at the auction of her home were disappointed.

Now she’s back, though, and more Stamey than ever. Last week, her attorney announced that she was suing the county and about a dozen of its employees for $20.2 million—that’s $240,000 for “lost economic opportunities” and $20 million in punitive damages. Among those to be punished are the county attorney, the former treasurer, three former deputy treasurers, the county clerk and the owners of the Bitterroot Star newspaper, all of whom are named as defendants in the suit. Their co-defedants include Greg Chilcott, J.R. Iman, Jeff Burrows, Chris Hoffman and Suzy Foss—the five members of the Ravalli County Commission that made her treasurer in the first place.

Stamey’s lawsuit claims that county commissioners conspired with treasury employees and the newspaper to “create the false impression that she was incompetent.” I’m no lawyer, but I think she’d have a better shot if she didn’t put the word “false” in there. This conspiracy does explain why the county commission appointed a treasurer who had no experience in managerial accounting, a history of bad debts, and a FUFI judgment against her. They needed a patsy. The only other explanation is that they made the worst hiring decision in Ravalli County history, exhibiting astonishingly poor judgment in the process. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!