Lawsuit alleges the Montana foreign minister may have abducted thousands of residents


A potential class action lawsuit has been filed against the Montana State Department office alleging it overcharged potentially thousands of customers and, despite knowing about the breakdown, refused to issue refunds unless residents demanded the money back in writing.

The lawsuit, filed in Lewis and Clark County, said the State Department office had software issues for months, if not more than a year, that resulted in customers who took advantage of the amount getting double bills – sometimes even up to four times as much for a variety of services, said attorney Rylee Sommers-Flanagan.

The complaint alleges that residents and businesses have no choice but to use the electronic business transaction portal created for then Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s office.

Foreign Minister Christi Jacobsen’s office did not respond Ask for an interview on this story.

Helena, we have a problem

The problem started when several companies noticed small duplicate bills on their credit card statements. When customers complained, the lawsuit stated that they would only be given refunds if customers requested the money back in writing. Often times this amount was small – $ 20 to $ 40.

Sommers-Flanagan said there could be hundreds of people or companies who have been charged and may not know about it – one of the reasons behind the class action lawsuit. Class actions are usually filed when multiple people or companies are in the same situation and the amount of money does not warrant an individual lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, the State Department knew of the glitch in its platform, which has since been converted, but decided to only return the money if customers requested it. Meanwhile, court documents state that the office would withhold the overcharged money if residents failed to notice or refused to ask for it in writing.

“Stapleton told agency staff that the agency’s policy is to only issue refunds upon written request,” the lawsuit said, claiming that Jacobsen was aware of the problem and the state’s position as early as October 2019 Agency not changed.

“Under certain circumstances, employees have compiled lists of affected Montaner, but a decision was made at the highest level not to return the money to the rightful owners,” says the court file.

The overpayments or multiple payments were made in different ways: Either customers clicked several times on a payment button, which could have triggered several transactions, or the payment processing system did not always match a daily batch comparison, which generated a message to the person that an outstanding amount was due was. Sometimes, the prosecution explains, they have been charged a late fee again.

Two secretaries, same result

The problem could have started as early as October 2019, said Sommers-Flanagan. It’s hard to tell because the State Department office didn’t provide the information to follow up on the issue. That would have been during Stapleton’s tenure, who was not running for office again. However, his deputy was Christi Jacobsen, the current foreign minister.

Both secretaries require customers to use the portal system, and both require payment by credit card – other payment methods were therefore out of the question, said Sommers-Flanagan.

“The secretary has publicly stated that his digital payment system is error-free,” said the court file. “Customers have no alternative to the faulty digital payment system.”

Previously, when the bug was reported by. got known Holly Michels from Lee Newspapersthe State Department said the bug was due to a specific version of the Google Chrome web browser. It was also said to have refunded about 1,200 transactions and fixed the issue.

Montana Foreign Minister Christi Jacobsen

“In truth, many (if not all) affected individuals and companies have only received reimbursements after identifying the problem and requesting a refund in writing,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit states that the problem persists before and after the public is made aware of the problem, and also “has persuaded people and businesses to recognize and automatically reimburse duplicate charges,” which is “the scope of the problem and misrepresents the adequacy of the secretariat ”. Answer to the problem. “

The extent of the problem could be significant. For example, at the end of fiscal 2020, a miscellaneous income account had $ 120,000 that Sommers-Flanagan said could be the overwhelming.

“Even if they didn’t know what kind of money it was, only another account with that much money would have had to ring the bells,” said Sommers-Flanagan.

Sommers-Flanagan said the challenge for individuals or companies also stems from time.

“There are tradeoffs for companies that are already looking for a $ 20 or even $ 80 refund. How much time does it take to request something like this in writing? ”Said Sommers-Flanagan. “Many will weigh that up.”

She said that because it was the Foreign Minister’s mistake, residents shouldn’t have to jump through hoops when forced to use a failing system.

Sommers-Flanagan said Montana law requires the secretary of state to refund the money, regardless of whether customers responded or even submitted a written refund request. She said that as long as the office was aware of the problem, it was obliged to return the money, especially because it did not offer any services or goods in exchange for receiving the money.

“We also need to know where the money went,” said Sommers-Flanagan.

The Daily Montanan is a not-for-profit news agency based in Helena that covers national politics and politics. It is a subsidiary of States Newsroom, a 501 (c) (3) national not for profit that is supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers.

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