The office of Gov. Greg Gianforte has refused to say where the state’s top elected official is as historic floods ravage southern Montana, despite repeated requests from Montana Free Press and other news outlets over the past two days.
A spokesperson for the governor’s office has said only that Gianforte left the country last week, before the Yellowstone River rose to take out massive chunks of infrastructure and isolate entire communities in Park, Carbon and Stillwater counties, on a “long-scheduled personal trip” with his wife, Susan Gianforte. But the office has declined to say what country Gianforte is visiting and specifically when the governor will be back in Montana.
“The governor is returning early and as quickly as possible,” gubernatorial spokesperson Brooke Strokye said in a statement Wednesday afternoon in response to repeated questions from the media.
The governor’s whereabouts have been an increasing topic of speculation on social media after Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras signed a declaration of disaster Tuesday in response to the flooding in southern Montana.
“The fact that [the flooding] is so extreme and his office has just been pretty recalcitrant about where he is and what’s going on is not great,” said Eric Austin, a public administration professor at Montana State University who teaches a class on government leadership and ethics.
There are legitimate reasons why a public official would not share their location during international travel, Austin said, but during a natural disaster, “perceptually, that doesn’t really help.”
Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras signed a declaration of disaster due to flooding in southern Montana in the absence of Gov. Greg Gianforte, who is out of the country.
On Monday, Gianforte gave his lieutenant governor, Kristen Juras, “express written authorization” to respond to the flooding on his behalf, his office said. The office said Gianforte activated the State Emergency Coordination Council to level 3 and “verbally authorized” the declaration earlier that day. The state has been in disaster status since that point.
It was Juras, identified as “acting governor,” who signed the official disaster declaration Tuesday morning, freeing up General Fund monies to help communities respond to the flooding.
State statute gives the governor “broad authority” to declare a state of disaster or emergency, and doesn’t have specific requirements that those declarations be made in writing. The state Constitution grants the lieutenant governor authority to serve as acting governor when requested in writing, and state law says the acting governor has full gubernatorial powers while serving in that capacity.
Stroyke did not provide a copy of that request when asked, but said it stated: “Lt. Gov. Juras, During my brief absence from the state you have my delegated authority to act on my behalf in response to the flooding in Montana.”
Since Monday, Gianforte and Juras have received briefings from state and local agency and government officials and have been in regular communication with local elected officials, law enforcement and emergency services personnel, Strokye said. Across several Tweets, Gianforte has also described evacuation efforts, speaking with partners about a coordinated disaster response, and requesting an expedited federal disaster declaration from the president. He has also provided updates about shelters and transportation logistics. None of his social media posts identified him as being out of the country.
On a press call Tuesday, Park County Commissioner Bill Berg said he had spoken with Gianforte and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, describing them as “tuned” to what’s going on in southern Montana.
No information about Gianforte’s whereabouts or plans was communicated to the press or public when the governor’s office announced the disaster declaration via press release Tuesday morning. The release did not include a copy of the written disaster declaration, which displays Juras’ signature, nor did it indicate that he was out of the country or had delegated authority to Juras.
“He is not the biggest advocate for transparency, engagement and accountability that we’ve ever seen,” Austin said. “To say that I’m paying attention and the lieutenant governor is on the job doesn’t help that perception. And politicians of both parties are not always quick to recognize the perception compared to what they think is the operational reality.”
MTFP requested a written copy of the disaster declaration from the governor’s office Tuesday at noon and asked a series of questions about the order’s effect. Later, the office gave a brief description of the order but did not include a written copy.
That Juras was acting as governor in Gianforte’s absence was not apparent until Lee newspapers and MTFP obtained a copy of the declaration Tuesday at about 2:30 p.m. At that time, MTFP asked the governor’s spokesperson where Gianforte was and how long he’d be there.
Stroyke responded that Gianforte was out of the country, and that Juras was authorized to take “all necessary action in his temporary absence, including visiting Red Lodge today to receive a briefing, tour the damage, and meet with residents who have been evacuated.”
MTFP again asked for Gianforte’s location and itinerary, prompting a response that he was overseas “and will return within a few days.” MTFP asked a series of follow-up questions — including why Gianforte’s absence was not noted in the original release — later Tuesday afternoon.
Stroyke responded Tuesday evening, repeating that Gianforte “left the country late last week and will return within a few days.”
MTFP followed up twice Wednesday before the governor’s office released a press statement, and then followed up once more to ask what country Gianforte is in.
“The governor and first lady are out of the country,” Stroyke responded.
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