It’s campaign season in Montana — and the political mudslinging is already giving our airwaves and social media networks the aura of a cattle feedlot. As candidates and political committees trade salvos, Montana Free Press will dissect the key political attack lines to dig out the facts embedded in the sludge. This is the first installment in our MuckWatch series.

THE MUCK

The Republican Governors Association, a party-affiliated institution that supports GOP gubernatorial candidates, has jumped on a July 8 ethics ruling that faulted Montana’s Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, for participating in a campaign-related Zoom video call in his state office.

In a television ad announced by the RGA July 9, the RGA faults Cooney for participating in the call with the Democratic Governors Association as the state economy suffers through the coronavirus pandemic.

“Mike Cooney was on the phone with party bosses in Washington talking about his campaign,” the ad’s voiceover reads. “Caught using his office for pure political gain, Cooney violated state ethics laws and got the maximum fine for it.”

An RGA spokeswoman told Montana Free Press the group had launched a six-figure TV and radio ad buy featuring the anti-Cooney message July 6. She also said the RGA had reserved “over $3 million” in fall television advertising to boost the candidacy of Cooney’s opponent, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte.

Gianforte’s official campaign, a separate organization from the RGA, has reported raising a total of just over $4 million in campaign finance filings current through mid-June.

THE FACTS

Responding to an ethics complaint filed May 19 by Montana GOP Executive Director Spencer Merwin, an investigation by Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan concluded that Cooney had in fact participated in a Zoom video conference call with the DGA April 3. While Cooney used a personal computer for the call, according to Mangan’s ruling, he participated while in his official office in the Montana state Capitol building — space that isn’t available for general public use.

Under Montana law, public officials are with some exceptions prohibited from using “public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel, or funds to solicit support for or opposition to any political committee, [or] the nomination or election of any person to public office.” The prohibition doesn’t apply if political activities are “properly incidental” to an official’s job.

Mangan ruled that Cooney had improperly used state facilities to support his candidacy by participating in the call. State law specifies a penalty fine ranging from $50 to $1,000, plus the cost of any legal proceedings, for ethics violations. Mangan’s ruling imposed a $1,000 fine, but declined to assess Cooney additional costs to cover the time Mangan’s office spent investigating the matter.

“To be clear, had Mr. Cooney conducted the same activity using his personal resources and office, the Commissioner would have dismissed the complaint as frivolous on its face,” Mangan also wrote.

The full 10-page ethics ruling is available here.

THE CONTEXT

As Cooney campaigns on his decades-long career in government, including stints as a state legislator, secretary of state and administrator in the state Department of Labor & Industry, his Republican opponents have sought to cast him as an “out-of-touch career politician.”

In prior attacks, for example, the RGA criticized Cooney for collecting “more than $1 million in taxpayer-funded paychecks” in the 44 years since he was first elected to public office. (That works out to an average of approximately $22,700 a year.)

The video call incident and resulting ethics ruling give Republicans fresh ammunition for their efforts to persuade Montana voters that Cooney’s career in government is a liability rather than an asset. In an attempt to argue the video call is part of a broader pattern, the RGA also points to an incident where Cooney was investigated after campaign documents from his 2000 gubernatorial bid were found on computers in the secretary of state’s office.

COONEY’S RESPONSE

Cooney spokeswoman Ronja Abel called the Republican attack ads “hypocritical,” pointing to GOP candidate Greg Gianforte’s 2017 misdemeanor criminal conviction for assaulting a reporter.

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“There is no comparison between his record and Mike Cooney’s long track record of delivering results to Montanans — on jobs, healthcare and public lands,” Abel said. “Cooney holds himself to the highest ethical standards and this isolated incident occurred while he was in the office helping Governor Bullock manage the state through an unprecedented crisis.”

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Mara Silvers contributed reporting.

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. He has worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.