HELENA — Old emails indicate former congressman Rick Hill's agreements to lease office space to the state could have benefited from his wife's position in former Gov. Judy Martz' office, helping support a competitor's allegation that the GOP gubernatorial front-runner got a "sweetheart deal."
An Associated Press analysis of emails originally received a decade ago in a records request on another matter help shed light on recent attacks from Corey Stapleton, a former state senator from Billings.
Hill is considered the front-runner in the crowded GOP primary for governor, set for Tuesday. Stapleton is one of his leading challengers.
Several of the email conversations show Betti Hill used a state email account to discuss leases with other state officials and help arrange meetings on the issue.
The Hill campaign said Friday there was nothing wrong with the meetings, and argued the leases were negotiated at or below market value.
The emails were among roughly 3,500 turned over to news organizations in 2002 as part of an investigation into the use of state telephones for political fundraising work. They were sent as some in the Martz Administration considered the possibility of constructing a new building.
At the time, some believed the fate of state office space rented at a Helena site known as the Phoenix Building was especially uncertain due to potential chemical remediation problems.
Rick Hill rented space to the state at another location at the time, and he says he had no stake in the Phoenix Building.
However, Betti Hill, then special projects director for Martz, wrote in an email to a top-level administration staffer that an "active party leader" and others were part of an ownership group of the building. She also wrote that her husband "had trouble with his lease," and said he and several other landlords wanted a meeting with the state about the future of state leases.
"This group would like a meeting regarding the lease of the Phoenix Building which is rented by DEQ (out by the airport)," Betti Hill wrote in an October 2001 email setting up a meeting on the matter. "They're concerned because they want to sell the building and the buyer won't buy it without a lease from the state, and they can't get the state to sign the lease."
Stapleton, a legislator in the Republican majority at the time, said that a short time later, plans for a new state building were dropped and Rick Hill kept his lease agreement. He said GOP lawmakers never got specific details, but he believes Rick Hill used his influence to improve his lease situation.
"At the time, we thought, 'This guy has a lot of gumption,'" Stapleton said.
Stapleton said he is surprised Hill has been denying the allegations levied by Stapleton in a television advertisement critical of the lease dealings and arguing Rick Hill has too much "baggage" to be the GOP nominee.
"I think it is really bold because when that many people in Helena were talking about it a long time ago and for them to come out and deny it, that is surprising."
The Hill campaign said the purpose of the meetings was to help out a trust that owned the building.
"The trustees were frustrated by the difficulty in learning whether or not the state intended to renew or extend the expiring lease. The state eventually vacated the property," said Rick Hill spokesman Brock Lowrance. "At the same time the Hills had a small 1,800-square-foot suite leased to the state and were experiencing similar frustration regarding the state's intention. That was not discussed at that meeting."
The Hills no longer own the property, Lowrance said. He argued the leases were always negotiated at or below market value.
He did say that Rick Hill, "as a fiscal conservative," opposed a new state building proposed at the time.