|JS: Hi, I'm here with Mike Wheat, a candidate for attorney here in the state of Montana. Mike would you like to introduce yourself and give us a quick argument for you candidacy?
Wheat: Yeah, thanks, Jay.
My name is Mike Wheat, I'm from Bozeman, and I'm running for attorney general.
It's getting late in the game, so I've...it's seems like I've said this thing over and over and over. I don't have anything bad to say about John or Steve. They're good folks. I just think I'm the candidate that's got the most experience, both legally and in life. And I have been in private practice for 27 years, representing individuals and small businesses, and before that I was a prosecutor for 3 years. Graduated from law school here at U of M in '78. I've been in the military. I served in the Marines and I served in Vietnam in '68 and '69. I think that's really important for folks who are trying to understand the qualifications, because you learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot of values - at least I did - that I've carried with me through my life, like discipline, and hard work, and team work, things like that.
I was in the legislature for two sessions in the Senate. And now I'm running for attorney general. On top of that, I'm a guy that, if I commit myself to something, I stick with it. I will have been married 35 years this summer, and my wife and I raised three boys. And in my private law practice I started that with a friend of mine from law school, and we were partners for 27 years.
So I think those are the kind of qualifications and life experiences that are important for the person who's going to be the lawyer for the state of Montana.
JS: So why are you running? Why do you want the attorney general gig?
Wheat: I didn't into politics until late in my life, because I raised a family and I worked in my practice and all that. When I got into the Senate, I really enjoyed that process. It's the public service aspect. You know, sometimes it sounds kind of corny, but my dad was a working man his whole life, he worked construction. I was the first one in our family - I have four siblings - that graduated from college, and then went on to law school. And it was something that my parents stressed. And they were probably the most patriotic people I ever knew, and they were focused on doing things for your community and doing things for your country.
And, so, that's why I want to, I'm at that stage of my career where I want to give something back. I've had a great legal career, and now I want to take what I've learned in that legal career and I want to put it to work in a job where I can still be a lawyer, but I can do public service at the same time.
JS: If you are attorney general, what would be your focus? What issues would you focus on? What are you going to accomplish on the job?
Wheat: Well, the Department of Justice is a pretty good sized department, and so I don't go in with any expectations that I'm going to start taking things apart. I think there are areas that I'd like to focus on. Consumer protection, for one. And on the law enforcement side, making sure our Crime Lab has got the resources to be a top-notch crime lab. As you know, a few years ago we got kind of a black eye with the Melnikoff thing.
And then, of course, on the Land Board I want to be a...I want to do a good job there, because it's really important. That's where we manage the 5.2 million acres of our state land to raise funds for schools, but you got to balance that with good stewardship of the land.
And on the consumer protection side, it's critically important, we read every day about seniors being ripped off, there's all kinds of scams out there. And so, I think the attorney general could be a lot more proactive in that area.
JS: What kind of things, uh, how could you be more proactive with seniors and consumer protection? Could you give us a little more detail?
Wheat: Well, I think education is critically important, so I think we need to give serious consideration to outreach. That is, going out to senior citizen centers, that working with AARP and other senior groups. And educating and give-alerting folks to what's coming down the line. I mean, these things don't just pop up, they start occurring in other parts of the country.
So, work cooperatively with the federal authorities, as well as other states' attorneys general, and then try to educate our seniors - and other consumers, all consumers, not just seniors. And, because sometimes it's on the Internet, and these people may not even be in the state of Montana. So the education is critically important. And then work cooperatively with other jurisdictions to find these people and prosecute them.
JS: You mentioned the Internet, do you think the state attorney general has responsibility to protect seniors and kids from Internet activities? And how would you go about that, if so?
Wheat: I do think the AG has an important role to play there. And, in fact...I think it was back in January, one announcement I made was that if I'm elected, one of the first things I'm going to do, I'm going to create what I'll call the "child predator unit."
There's three police officers in the state of Montana right now that are being funded through private grants, one is in Billings, one is in Helena, and one is right here in Missoula. And it's their job to go out and patrol the Internet highways looking for these characters that are looking for our kids.
And so, I think the role that the attorney general can play is, by centralizing some resources, and helping patrol the Internet highway, the AG's office can lend considerable support to all of the outlying law enforcement folks, and can do the same thing with, in the consumer area, as well.
JS: So, what tools would you ask from the legislature to help you do that? Is there any additional laws, or powers, or...um...obviously staff and equipment...
Wheat: I don't think it's so much the laws, I think we have the laws that we can rely on if we catch these people to prosecute them. I think what we need is, we need people who understand computers and understand the Internet, and who can get on the Internet highway and patrol. That's what these other police officers are doing. They go out, they get on chat rooms, they look for conversations that may be suspect to them, and so that's really what it is, it's just being out there like, much like a highway patrolman on our interstate highways. We just need some Internet patrolmen on our Internet highways, because there's some startling statistics out there about how many of these predators are out there looking for underage kids.
JS: To change gears here...
JS: Death penalty. Support it?
Wheat: No, I'm opposed. And it's very simple, and it's easy for me to be opposed, because...as a lawyer I take an oath to uphold the constitution. And...we cannot, in our constitutional jurisprudence system, guarantee that the people we're killing for crimes actually committed the crime. And so, to me, it's very simple. If you can't guarantee that, then you're denying the, some constitutional rights to people who may be innocent.
And so, I know there are lots of other arguments against the death penalty, the cost, the morality, and all of those things. But from a purely legal point of view, we can't guarantee that who we're killing are the guilty party.
And so I'm opposed.
JS: Is that the only, I mean are you also morally opposed to the death penalty?
Wheat: Well, I don't know if necessarily morally opposed, it's, uh, you know I think we all struggle with the morality issues of what do we do as a society. It's, it's, maybe it's okay to go to war, and kill people, but it's not okay to do it in our own society, I mean, so I don't get too deep into that discussion. It's really more on a real, solid, legal foundation.
JS: Sure. And so, how would that play out in your tenure as attorney general? Would you not ask for the death penalty?
Wheat: No. The death penalty is the law in the state of Montana. And if I'm elected attorney general, I have to take an oath to uphold the law. And so I would uphold that law. It's up to the legislature to change it, not me.
But my personal belief is that I'm opposed to it.
JS: So just to clarify, you would, if the crime fit the penalty, and the jury decided for death penalty, you would...or you would instruct your prosecutors to...to...
Wheat: Seek it?
JS: Yeah, seek it, if the crime merited it.
Wheat: Generally, it's going to be the prosecutor in the county where the crime occurred that's going to make the decision whether or not to seek the death penalty. It's not going to be the attorney general that dictates that.
JS: Is there anything you can do as attorney general to ensure that the death penalty is done fairly? Like you say, one of the problems that exist with the death penalty is that, you know, it oftentimes it's, uh, given to folks who don't have adequate representation, or, uh, in certain areas where there's prejudice against the defendant, economically or racially or whatever, is there anything you can do as attorney general to ensure that, you know, that the death penalty is given out fairly? In the state?
Wheat: Well, that's difficult, because really what you're talking about, is you're talking about unfair and unequal application of the law. And again, that violates constitutional principles of equal protection of the law.
I think prosecutors have to be very careful about asking for the death penalty and don't allow themselves to be driven by emotion and revenge. If there really is a case where a prosecutor believes it's a crime that merits the death penalty, they better be very careful about it. They better be absolutely sure that the evidence they have points to the person who that they've accused.
And so, as, I think as attorney general, I would talk to the county attorneys - I've already talked to them, I've already told them just what I told you, that I'm personally opposed to it, but I would uphold the law.
If there was a case, for example, if I were the attorney general, and a county attorney wanted to seek the death penalty, I wouldn't go in and say, hey, I'm opposed so I don't want you to do this. I would say, it's your choice. You're the elected official. But you'd better make darn sure, because there's a lot of cases that across our country where people have been wrongfully accused or wrongfully executed. So make sure that you know what you're doing. And you have the evidence to establish what you're doing.
JS: I know in the last legislature, there was a bill seeking to get rid of the death penalty, in the legislature. It passed the Senate, and was tabled in a House committee. If such a bill came up again in the legislature, would you testify in favor of it? Or would you just...
Wheat: I don't necessarily think it's my job as the attorney general to go and try to push through something that I personally believe in, when it's my job to enforce it. If they asked me to come and testify, I would. And I would make it very clear on the record that, look, I'm testifying as a citizen of the state of Montana. And I don't want you to confuse that with my position as attorney general, because I have an obligation to enforce these laws.
JS: Understood. I don't want to make this whole thing about the death penalty...
JS: I'm very intrigued by it, your stance, and obviously there are different groups who oppose it here in the state, you know there's conservative Christians, of course, some liberals, and so, uh, you know, I think there is some ambivalence about it here in the state. So, you know, I'm just trying to figure out one person's personal ambivalence about it.
Wheat: Well, you know, just one last statement on that...
Wheat: I think, as a society, we have to think long and hard about killing people. And my only hope is that we continue to have this debate about the death penalty, because I think it's healthy for us as citizens, and I think it's healthy for our society. To really sit down and be honest, setting aside emotion. Because some very, very heinous crimes occur out there that would turn our stomachs. But think about is this something we really, really want to condone as a society?
And so if we have the debate, then I think it's healthy for all of us.
JS: Okay, fair enough.
Here in Missoula, there was a recent resolution passed to make marijuana the lowest priority for law enforcement officials - I guess non-felony marijuana cases - of course while Missoula is a bit of a...People's Republic of Missoula, whatever you want to, joke you want to make, I think there is a sense here in Montana that folks are a little bit tired of the war on drugs. And stocking prisons full of nonviolent offenders.
Is that a statement you would agree with? And, if so, are there any additional steps, I know we have drug courts, is there any additional steps we can take to, you know, instead of putting people in prison we can seek out treatment for drug offenders, things like that? Is that something you're interested in?
Wheat: I'm really interested in that. And this is, my approach is anytime we can divert somebody away from incarceration and back to being a productive member of our community, we've done a good thing. It costs money to keep people in jail. We don't - we're not doing a very good job of rehabilitating any of the people that are in prison. In many instances you'll hear people say they go in and they'll just become more criminalized because they're in jail with people that teach them new tools of the trade, if you will.
So I'm a bid advocate of being open, honest about drugs with young people, what are the risks, not just to themselves, but to their career if they get arrested, all of those things.
And then, if people, I think we need to be, pay attention to the nonviolent offenders, like young people that get caught up with drugs, and try to divert them away, and try to not criminalize them for the rest of their life. And it's an effort to keep them as productive members of society.
Now you have to remember that we're still, it's against the law, in Montana to possess a certain amount of marijuana, and, as the attorney general I am obviously going to have to uphold the law, but I think, as a society here in Montana, we have to think about not just criminalizing all these people, but diverting them away. And that's through education and treatment and offering them alternatives to prison. And that is, we can put them in drug courts, we can have less harsh treatment facilities so they don't end up going into prisons. I think there's a lot of things we can do.
It's going to cost money. But in the long run, it's like the old ad, pay me now or pay me later. I would rather put the money up front, so that we don't have to pay it to put somebody in jail. I'd much rather have these people out in our community being good, solid citizens, paying taxes and raising families than ending up in prison just because they may have been diverted off track for awhile.
JS: Would you support a bill, for example, that mandated for first or second time nonviolent drug offenders treatment instead of incarceration?
Wheat: I'd sure give it serious consideration. I don't know what all the statistics are, but what I would want to do is, is I'd want to sit down with the folks and, at corrections, I'd want to meet with law enforcement people, I'd want to meet with people who have some expertise in this area, and I'd want to find out. What's our best alternative here? If we can divert these folks away, if it's going to cost us a little money, what's our chance of recovery here? So I think it's darn sure an option that I'd want to look at.
JS: On a related note, medicinal marijuana. There seems to be, you know, tension between federal officials and state officials, what's your stance on medicinal marijuana, and how would you, you know...for example, I'm thinking recently there was a drug bust in Dillon of a fellow who obviously uses his marijuana for medical purposes. What's your feeling on those busts, and the conflict between federal and state officials on that particular topic?
Wheat: Well I actually wrote on Left in the West about this, and I'm a huge supporter of the initiative and referendum process. And we have the medicinal marijuana law because people went out and they passed the initiative, well, they got the petitions signed, they got it on the ballot, and then it passed, I think by two-thirds of the vote.
And so, that says something right there about people's acceptance of people using marijuana for medical purposes. I don't know if you've read the law, but it's pretty darn specific about who can and who can't use medical marijuana. You have to have a doctor involved, you have to get certified, I mean, there's a whole long list there. But there's also, it's very specific about how much you can have in your possession.
And so the folks that are doing it are going to have to be careful. I don't know all the facts about what happened in Dillon. My understanding is that they had more plants than was allowed by the statute, but I don't know all the facts. So I know that there's some affirmative defenses under the statute, I think that case is going to have to play it out.
But with that as a background, we've passed the law, and I want to be very...if I'm the attorney general I'm going to make it clear to law enforcement, look, this is a law that the people have passed, and just because we have this long-standing war on drugs doesn't mean you can start focusing on these peoples as suspects that may be violating the law. You have to respect their right, if they've gone through this process, to use medical marijuana. Irrespective of what your personal opinion is.
Because I think, you know, really when you look at it, we spent so much time over the last 30 or 40 years making marijuana and other drugs...bad. And I'm not defending them, I'm just saying this is the process we've gone through, that if there's going to be any relaxation of that, it's going to take a little bit of time. And I think the folks that are in law enforcement, they're dealing with drug dealers. I mean, not people that are taking medical marijuana, but people that come in, into our state, and they want to sell drugs to my kids, or yours, and so they get sort of caught in the middle, and it's a tough job for them, but they're going to have to be careful not to allow this prejudice against any kind of drug use to spill over into folks that are using medical marijuana.
JS: Looking over the next 4 to 8 years, depending on how many times you get elected to attorney general, what do you think, sort of, the emerging or new challenges for law enforcement will be during that time? Do you have any idea of stuff that might be a problem, coming up?
Wheat: Well...I'm not sure. I think I would be in a lot better position to answer that if I was the attorney general , I could go meet with law enforcement folks.
But one of things I've at least mentioned to law enforcement people, when I'm out talking, is there's a lot of people are starting to feel a separation between themselves, citizenry, and law enforcement. And, I think that's something that law enforcement, law enforcement folks, both police, sheriffs, highway patrol, all of them, are going to have to work on. And that is, look, you're members of our community. And you're there to protect us. And we want you to be part of the community. We don't want to be afraid of you, and you shouldn't feel like you're at war with us.
We know these guys are out there dealing with folks that sometimes aren't so nice. But there's still, they're just members of community, and I think if we can, if I can do anything over the next four to eight years, that's something I'd like to see happen a little more.
JS: Okay. One last question. What's your legacy going to be as attorney general? What are people going to say about you, about your tenure as attorney general?
Wheat: You know, I've spent 30 years building my legal reputation and my personal reputation. And I'm proud of that. What I tell people is, one of the critical things about being an attorney general is that you be independent. You hear these rumors that, oh, if you're the attorney general then you're destined to run for governor, or something else.
That's not my goal. My goal is to run for attorney general. And keep a very independent mind, and make decisions on behalf of the public. Because I don't want anyone to think that I got the job, and then I started making decisions in a way that shaped my political career, rather than shaping what's good for public policy.
And so I want my legacy to be that I was an attorney general that took the job seriously, that I focused on being attorney general, that I inspired people who work in the Department of Justice, so that they feel a sense of pride when they go to work. And they feel like they're actually working for people and doing good things for people.
You see it all the time. We read it on Left in the West all the time, how people are separated from their government. That they're separated from people who work in government. I saw it when I was in the legislature. People that just, they don't trust, and they don't like government anymore. I would like to be able to have people think that, at least Mike Wheat went in, and he did something for people, and he made sure that government - at least the part he was involved in - was really working for our benefit and on our behalf.
JS: That's fair, that's very nice. Thanks for talking with me today, Mike -
Wheat: Thank you.