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 second installment in our MuckWatch series.

THE MUCK

Two recent ads paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the most recent released today, say Gov. Steve Bullock, who is running to unseat U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in November, “has been accused of steering state grants” to a business formerly owned by his brother.

“Steve Bullock supports … making deals to help his own family,” the narrator of the most recent ad says. “Think about that.”

The ads don’t name the company and provide few other details, but say a company associated with Bullock’s brother, William Bullock, has received $14 million in state grants and contracts. A Friday press release announcing the new ad says those contracts were awarded during Bullock’s tenure. 

The company referred to in the ads is Pioneer Technical Services, company president and CEO Brad Archibald said in an interview Friday. William Bullock co-founded the company in 1991. The Butte-based engineering and environmental services company currently employs 150 Montanans and is employee-owned. 

When the first advertisement started airing, Archibald and an attorney for the firm sent letters to broadcasters asking that it be taken off the air, saying the ad falsely claims that Bullock approved contracts for the company to benefit his brother. 

“The contracts [the company] has to perform work for Montana were awarded through the normal state competitive process because of Pioneer’s track record of excellent work and its sterling reputation,” the company’s lawyer, Karl Englund, wrote in a July 27 letter.  

THE FACTS

It’s true that Pioneer Technical Services has been awarded millions in state contracts during Bullock’s tenure as governor, but the governor doesn’t have any say in the awarding of contracts, state officials said Friday. 

The company received its first government contract in 1992, long before Bullock became a political figure, and has regularly won contracts with the state since then, Archibald said. Pioneer has received more than $14 million in state contracts since Bullock took office in 2013. 

But Bullock has had no say or role in awarding those contracts, officials with the state’s Department of Administration said. Contract award authority is delegated to the Department of Administration. That authority, and a prohibition against favoritism in the awarding of government contracts, is defined in state statute, they said. 

“The governor has no involvement in the procurement or contracting process for the state of Montana. The authority is granted by statute to the Department of Administration,” said department spokeswoman Amber Conger. “[Bullock] has no involvement. And there’s no instance where he would have involvement in the contracting or awarding of contracts. It’s a competitive bidding process.”

William Bullock left the company in 2004 and sold his shares in Pioneer in 2009, according to letters the company and its attorney sent to broadcasting companies asking that the ads be taken off the air. 

William Bullock has served as chairman of the company’s board of directors since 2017. In that role he and other board members receive $1,500 quarterly to cover expenses and time spent in board meetings. He otherwise has no financial stake in the company, Englund said in the July 27 letter. 

Archibald also said the company hasn’t directly received any state grants — as distinct from contracts — while Bullock has been in office. He said the grant allegation might refer to work that a municipal government — which could have received a state grant — contracted with Pioneer to complete on its behalf. 

THE CONTEXT

The ads imply that Bullock uses his position to benefit friends and family members over everyday Montanans. The ads include no factual information about William Bullock’s involvement with the company, and provide no evidence that Pioneer’s contracts with the state benefited the governor’s brother or were awarded because of William Bullock’s relation to the governor. 

Instead, the ads rely on listeners and viewers to connect the dots and conclude that Pioneer received state contracts during Bullock’s tenure as a result of “corruption and nepotism,” Archibald alleged in a July 24 response to the first ad.  

“Importantly, our advertisement did not comment on why Steve Bullock directed state business that utilized your company,” Ryan G. Dollar, NRCS’s general counsel, wrote in a July 27 letter to William Bullock, Pioneer Technical Services and Archibald. “[W]e left it up to Montanans to draw their own implications about Steve Bullock’s direction over this state business.”

In a press release announcing the launch of the second advertisement, NRSC spokesman Nathan Brand was more explicit, alleging that the contracts are proof of corruption and cronyism: “Bullock will put his own interests first, even when it costs hardworking taxpayers.”

BULLOCK’S RESPONSE

Sean Manning, a spokesman for Bullock’s Senate campaign, said the NRSC claims “are just not supported by the facts.”

“Governor Bullock’s brother resigned from Pioneer Technical Services before the Governor was elected to public office, and his brother sold his shares in 2009 — four years before Bullock became Governor,” Manning wrote in an email to Montana Free Press. “It is absolutely false that the Governor ‘steered’ contracts to this Montana business — all contracts are issued in compliance with state procurement laws. Senator Daines should tell his allies in DC to take down this outright misleading ad that defames a Montana company.”

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This story was updated July 31, 2020 with a new headline. The original published headline identified the National Republican Senatorial Committee as a political action committee. It is a political party committee.

Chris Aadland covers tribal affairs in Montana as a Report for America corps member based in Billings. Before moving to Montana he covered the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.