Ethics complaint against Gov. Schweitzer dismissed
HELENA — The commissioner of political practices dismissed the ethics case against Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Thursday, prompting a strong reaction from the Montana Republican Party, which promised to continue pursuing the case.
Schweitzer, a Democrat, was accused of improperly using state resources to appear in a public service radio advertisement at the same time he was running for re-election in 2008.
Last summer, a hearings officer recommended that Schweitzer pay a $4,100 fine for violating state laws that ban expenditure of state money for such advertisements. The officer found that two state workers helped record the PSAs promoting national agriculture month, and that it took little time to do so, and send the ads to radio stations, which ran them for free.
That had followed a decision from a previous commissioner of political practices that determined in an initial decision that Schweitzer had indeed broken the ethics laws.
But a new commissioner of political practices — recently appointed amid partisan wrangling that has led to four appointments in just two years — sent the case out to a special deputy for final resolution. Commissioner Jim Murry, who has served as campaign treasurer for Schweitzer, said he chose an impartial attorney with no campaign links to the governor.
Bozeman attorney James Goetz said Thursday in a written order that no "state funds" were spent on the public service announcements that ran for free on radio stations. He said Schweitzer's use of public facilities to make the ad does not count as "state funds."
"A 'candidate' may not use 'state funds' to pay for public service announcements," Goetz wrote. "The evidence is uncontested that the Governor did not use 'state funds' to pay for the public service ads."
The Montana Republican Party, which can appeal the decision to district court, argued Goetz is not impartial — pointing to a history of campaign donations to Democrats.
"This is so far wrong it's laughable. It's a serious miscarriage of justice," said Montana Republican Party Executive Director Bowen Greenwood. "Brian Schweitzer's campaign treasurer is appointed commissioner of political practices, and one month later a frequent Democrat donor dismisses Schweitzer's ethics violations. This is not over."
Murry, the new commissioner, defended his decision to name Goetz the special deputy in the case. Murry said he consulted with professional staff in the office before making the choice.
"He has a reputation of having tremendous credibility within the legal community and he has a reputation of being objective and impartial in applying the laws," Goetz said.
The governor argued throughout the four-year-old case that the law was ambiguous.
"We agree with the ruling. As the Governor has said before, not one red cent of taxpayer funds was used," said spokeswoman Sara Elliott. "In fact, this law is so ambiguous that the legislature debated the meaning of this statute in the 2011 session and even re-drafted parts of the law."