HELENA — The hearings officer in Gov. Brian Schweitzer's three-year-old ethics case said Wednesday that the Democratic governor should be fined $4,100 for violating state law by appearing in a public service radio advertisement during his 2008 re-election campaign.
The hearings officer appointed by the commissioner of political practices issued a proposed decision Wednesday in the penalty phase of the case, saying his order can be instructive to others trying to decipher the ethics law banning the use of state resources to produce PSA announcements featuring a candidate for office.
The state commissioner of political practices previously had found that Schweitzer broke ethics laws when he appeared in a public service radio advertisement during his 2008 re-election campaign.
It will be up to the commissioner whether to accept the recommended penalty order, although commissioners in the past have often followed the advice in the recommendations. The office of political practices said the commissioner has 90 days to make a decision.
The governor has argued the law is ambiguous.
"The governor was promoting Montana agriculture and believes that Mr. Corbett's recommendation is incorrect," spokeswoman Sarah Elliott said. "As the governor has said before, not one red cent of taxpayer funds was used."
The Montana Republican Party brought the claim against the governor. A party spokesman says the ethics law Schweitzer broke was signed into law by the Democratic governor himself.
"The governor resisted admitting it every step of the way, but now the time has come for him to fess up. Brian Schweitzer broke Montana's ethics laws," said GOP spokesman Bowen Greenwood.
Hearings officer William Corbett said in his proposed order that a fine of $100 each for 41 public service announcements is adequate to cover the small production costs of the PSA. State law allows a penalty up to $1,000 per violation.
Corbett said only two state workers helped record the PSAs promoting national agriculture month, and it took little time to do so and email them to the radio stations.
"This entire case provides an excellent learning devise for state incumbent officials who seek election or re-election, for media sources who may be asked to run PSAs by such officials, and all those interested in ethical conduct in government," Corbett wrote. "Consequently, there is no reason to subject the Respondent to an exorbitant administrative fine."
Corbett said he hopes the decision sends a "strong message."
"Montana officeholders are on notice, a $100 fine per PSA will not likely be duplicated in a future proceeding," Corbett wrote. "All are now on notice that office holders who make PSAs at taxpayer expense, after filing for election or re-election, are engaged in an illegal activity and will be facing substantial administrative fines, especially if that PSA reaches potential Montana voters."