The Montana office of Political Practices has dismissed an ethics complaint against Governor Brian Schweitzer going back to 2008. The Montana Republican Party says Schweitzer improperly used state funds to produce a radio public service announcement promoting Montana Agriculture. It was produced while Schweitzer was running for reelection. This would be considered illegal if state funds were used. But a specially appointed Deputy Political Practices Commissioner finds no wrong doing.
The small locally owned radio station in Lewistown, sits right in the heart of the Montana, right in the heart of Ag country. KXLO/KLCM uses March to show their love, during National Agriculture Appreciation Month. Station manager Phyllis Hall. She says they’ve been producing Ag Month Public Service Announcements for probably 20 years.
“We go out and we ask different people to call in and send us a one minute ‘We appreciate Agriculture and all they do in Montana,” Hall said.
All sorts of private and public figures have done these things: The director of the Montana Department of Agriculture, Senators, Representatives, etc. And in 2008, KXLO/KLCM asked Governor Brian Schweitzer.
Schweitzer produced the PSA with state equipment and assistance of state employees. It didn’t take long to make. The complaint comes not from the Governor saying nice things about farmers and ranchers. It’s when he produced it, which was shortly after he filed for re-election. Montana Republican Party Executive Director Bowen Greenwood says Schweitzer himself had signed a law to prevent that in 2005.
“At the time, it was a frequent practice of many politicians in Montana to produce Public Service Announcements touting that just by sheerest coincidence happened to run within a few weeks of the election,” he said.
The Governor’s PSA aired 8 months before the election, not a few weeks. Still it did get Schweitzer’s voice and name on the airwaves during election season. Also, the Governor used his campain slogan “Montana on the Move” during the PSA.
The 2008 complaint went before Montana’s Political Practices Commissioner. It was ruled the Governor did act inappropriately, but it still hadn’t been decided what Schweitzer’s penalty fee should be. The case was recently picked back up though and the ruling was reversed. A specially appointed Deputy Political Practices Commissioner, Bozeman attorney Jim Goetz, ruled the Governor had not violated the law. The law says candidates may not use state money for PSAs. Goetz says using employee time does not fit that definition. This has Republicans crying foul. For one, the office of political practices has had its own problems in the past few months, with a commissioner resigning near the beginning of the year after allegations of unethical behavior. Governor Schweitzer recently appointed his friend and former campaign treasurer, Jim Murry, to the Commissioner’s post. Murry recused himself from taking the case because of that conflict of interest. He appointed Jim Goetz to serve as Deputy Commissioner. Goetz has a history of donating to Democratic candidates. But Murry says Goetz has a reputation of being impartial.
“Staff here did a great job of researching Jim Goetz’s background and it was concluded that he was not an ally of the Governor’s. He’d not made contributions to his campaign,” Murry said.
Governor Schweitzer would not comment for this story. His office released a statement saying he agrees with the Goetz ruling, Saying “Not one red cent of taxpayer funds was used.
Bowen Greenwood with the Montana Republican Party says when you’re dealing with state equipment and state employees, that distinction is semantic.
“Were those employees paid while they were producing the ad? With what were they paid? Because I suspect the answer is going to be state funds,” Greenwood said.
Greenwood says the party is researching options for appealing the decision.