Who is Denny Rehberg, really?

  • Denny Rehberg in his Washington, D.C., office, where, he often says, he spends his nights away from Montana sleeping on the couch.

    Tom Williams, Getty Images
  • Reminders of Montana in the Washington, D.C., office of Congressman Denny Rehberg.

    Pete Marovich
  • Denny Rehberg and Jon Tester during their June debate, when Tester charged that Rehberg is a "mansion rancher."

    Kurt Wilson, Missoulian
  • Denny Rehberg stresses his Montana values in TV ads and other videos, such as "Rancher," seen on the Montanans4Rehberg channel on YouTube.

  • On the Rehberg for Senate website, Denny Rehberg stresses his fifth-generation rancher credentials. But some of his personal escapades have made the biggest headlines, including a 2009 drunken boat crash on Flathead Lake (he was a passenger) that left one of his aides with brain damage.

    Courtesy Katrin Frye, Montana Public Radio (right)
  • Billings, Montana, c. 1915. When A.J. and Mary Ada Rehberg arrived a few years earlier, the population had already topped 10,000. "Our best guess is they were looking for a little more security than the wild frontier life offered for their family," Denny Rehberg says in an email to HCN.

    Haines Photo Co., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
  • The Rehberg Ranch Estates website shows the family history starting with A.J. Rehberg. But a records search shows that even early on, A.J. was a land speculator. "I remember him telling me that he owned no land that wasn't for sale," Denny Rehberg says.

  • Homes dot the hillside on the Rehberg Ranch Estates development, where many dozens of lots have been sold so far, and the plan calls for a total of 1,200 housing units.

    Larry Mayer, Billings Gazette

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Here’s a totally different creation story, equally true, drawn from a fuller set of facts: Denny Rehberg is a fourth-generation Montana real estate speculator and subdivider.

Most of the ranchland that A.J. Rehberg acquired was within a few miles of downtown and the city's airport, above "the rim" -- the sandstone cliffs that run along the city's north side. When he began buying that land in the late 1930s, the airport had a new terminal and a new access road cutting through the rim from downtown, and two airlines had established service. The area was ripe for suburbanization. A.J. Rehberg began subdividing the land in 1941, carving out 34.75 acres near the airport and the rim's edge -- some of the best real estate in Montana, overlooking the whole city and the Yellowstone River Valley. (One of the houses built there is now worth about $900,000.) In the same choice suburban area, A.J. sold another 14 acres in 1942.

A.J. and his wife subdivided another 89 acres of the ranchland just above the rim in 1956, and began selling lots, averaging about $200 per acre (the equivalent of about $1,600 per acre today). In 1959 and 1960, they launched the Warbonnet Subdivision on some of the best land below the rim -- 58 acres tucked against the base of the cliffs, turned into dozens of lots.

A.J. Rehberg was shrewd and quick to recognize opportunities. He bought most of the ranchland (more than 4,400 acres) from the Yellowstone County government for about 50 cents per acre; apparently it had been seized from other landowners who couldn't pay their taxes during the Depression. He also bought 80 acres of federal land near the airport in 1951, which was eventually subdivided. He bought land where highways were being expanded to improve access, and those projects as well as the airport's continued expansion increased the value of his holdings. He got cheap leases on thousands of acres of state grazing land that formed a checkerboard pattern, mixed in with his private land. (Our map shows the Rehbergs' land purchases and subdivisions over the years.)

Other relatives subdivided the dairy land. In 1953, just before he died, Wallace S. Rehberg -- Denny Rehberg's grandfather -- launched the so-called Rehberg Subdivision, turning some of the dairy land into 32 lots. His widow, Dorothy Rehberg, subdivided more of the dairy land into many dozens of additional lots in both the Rehberg Subdivision and the Westwood Estates Subdivision, sold off in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The lots fetched at least $1,000 each, according to sales records.

With such sizable assets, the family did pay a sequence of Montana inheritance taxes and federal estate taxes -- a story Denny has told in a video for a D.C.-area libertarian think tank, Americans for Limited Government, as well as during the Big Sky debate and at many other venues. He often says the big hit came when his great-grandmother died in 1974, and the family was forced to sell one-third of the ranchland to pay the taxes. But actually, his great-grandmother died in 1976; his grandmother died in 1974.

And again, the reality isn't quite as clear-cut as Denny Rehberg's stories. As is often the case with inheritances, there were many heirs and a maze of financial arrangements as several key Rehbergs died. Basically, the Rehbergs decided that the ranchland would end up with Jack Rehberg and his kids, while the former dairy land and those subdivided lots would end up with other heirs.

The sequence began when A.J. Rehberg died in 1963. His widow, Mary Ada, assumed full possession of his estate, which included the ranchland. Mary Ada had about $30,000 in investments and savings, and the family paid about $14,000 in inheritance-related taxes to the feds and Montana -- less than 10 percent of the estate's value, according to probate court documents. It appears that the Rehbergs didn't have to sell any land to pay those taxes. But shortly after Mary Ada inherited the ranchland, she gave or sold a half-interest in it to Jack.

Dorothy Rehberg, Denny's grandmother, owned the former dairy land and some unsold lots in the Rehberg Subdivision when she died in 1974, according to court documents. She had about $38,000 in savings and investments, and people who'd bought lots owed her another $5,200. The family decided that this estate would pass to four heirs that didn't include Jack Rehberg and his kids. They paid about $32,000 in federal and state taxes -- about 17 percent of the estate's value -- and covered it partly by selling Rehberg Subdivision lots for at least $3,000 each.

Around the same time, from 1974 to 1975, Jack Rehberg sold more than 2,500 acres of the ranchland, mostly whole 640-acre sections. He subdivided the section that had been A.J. Rehberg's old home place, and began selling those lots. It was traumatic for the family. Jack and his wife and kids, including Denny, had also lived on that section, in a remodeled grain-storage building near A.J.'s house. Jack sold that portion of the ranchland because he was preparing to pay the next round of inheritance-related taxes, Denny Rehberg says in an email (his spokesman asked for questions in writing). Mary Ada Rehberg, Denny's great-grandmother, died in 1976. She and Jack were co-owners of the ranchland, and though other heirs are listed in the court documents, Jack inherited the estate and gave each of his kids (Denny and Denny's sister) a 25 percent interest. They paid a $28,466.65 inheritance tax to Montana's government. Court documents don't report the total value of this estate and any easily tapped cash and investments, and there's no indication that an estate tax was paid to the feds. Denny Rehberg says that the federal tax was nearly $200,000, and that he borrowed about $140,000 from a bank to pay the taxes. It took him and his wife more than 20 years to pay off the loan, he adds. It's still not clear why they needed the loan; if the 2,500 acres they sold fetched just $100 per acre, that alone would've been enough to pay the taxes.

"Be assured that my sister, my wife and I know full well what family-owned businesses go through ... when family members die," Rehberg says. In his frequent accounts of the tax hit, though, he doesn't mention that Congress and Montana have greatly reduced the inheritance-related taxes since the 1970s. This year, there is no federal inheritance tax on estates worth less than $5.12 million, so 99.8 percent of all estates are not targeted. The federal tax will increase next year unless Congress renews the current policy, but Democrats and Republicans want to keep it much lower than it was in the 1970s. The Montana Legislature and a 2000 ballot measure approved by Montana voters have eliminated the state's inheritance-related taxes.

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