Gov’s Office Contacted Commissioner in Ethics Case

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The commissioner of political practices has disclosed that a senior official in Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s administration contacted him outside of official proceedings in an ongoing ethics case.

Commissioner Dennis Unsworth, who acts like a judge in the proceedings, said Friday the contact came from Eric Stern, Schweitzer’s senior counsel.

Unsworth said Stern had expressed frustration about a procedural decision made in the case, which involves a complaint filed against the governor by the Montana Republican Party over a law banning certain public service announcements. Stern also asked for documents and pointed out key points from a previous hearing, Unsworth said.

Unsworth first revealed the contact during a conference call this week with attorneys involved in the case and William Corbett, who is charged with overseeing the ethics hearing and drafting an initial decision in the case.

In the complaint, Republicans allege the Schweitzer administration produced and sent a public service announcement using state money after the governor had filed for re-election.

Schweitzer’s attorney has argued the announcement e-mailed to promote agricultural month was not the type banned by law.

Unsworth will use Corbett’s finding to issue a final decision.

But Republicans say the process has been tainted by the communications. Their lawyer, Lance Lovell, said a full hearing needs to be held.

“We all know that the only possible purpose for such backdoor communications by the administration is to improperly attempt to dissuade you from entering an order against this governor in the underlying ethics complaint,” Lovell wrote Thursday in a letter to Unsworth. “The Schweitzer administration’s conduct has unfairly tainted this entire process.”

Schweitzer’s spokeswoman referred calls to the governor’s attorney, Mike Meloy, who released a copy of a letter sent Friday to the parties involved in the case.

In the letter, Meloy described Lovell’s comments as “an unfortunate diatribe filled with defamatory rhetoric.”

Meloy said there is no basis for a separate hearing on the communications, and that Unsworth had made it clear he was not affected by them.

“The only possible benefit to the Republicans from their request for a ‘hearing’ is to continue their unremitting effort to mil these proceedings for some political gain for the Republicans,” Meloy wrote.

At the same time, Meloy said the governor is willing to accept Corbett’s decision as final, bypassing the need for Unsworth to render one.

The Republicans would also have to agree to such a request — and Lovell said they have made no such determination yet.

“When you have a senior administration official caught doing this, it has to be taken very seriously,” Lovell said in an interview. “I am dismayed at the spin my colleague would try to put on it.”

Unsworth said Friday he brought the conversations to light so the parties involved could figure out how to deal with them.

“I am leaving it up to the attorneys to determine if the (communication) rule was violated,” Unsworth said. “It wasn’t clear to me whether it was out of line or not.”

Unsworth said the issue could get resolved as early as next week.