Lawyer: Schweitzer Ethics Case Should be Tossed

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A state law used to determine Gov. Brian Schweitzer illegally appeared in state-produced radio announcements while he was a candidate is vague and should be thrown out, an attorney for the governor argued.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the law is ambiguous and should not be enforced on the governor,” Mike Meloy told District Judge Jeff Sherlock at a hearing. “This is not Watergate. This is a simple ‘thank-you-to-farmers’ announcement.”

Meloy said the law is not clear in whether “state funds” means any state money, staff or equipment or a “discrete amount of money” set aside specifically to produce public service announcements.

The law was aimed at the latter, after former state officials used settlement money to produce PSAs featuring themselves while they were candidates for office, he said.

Attorneys for the Montana Republican Party, which brought the ethics complaint, and the state political practices commissioner argued otherwise.

G. Steven Brown of Helena, representing the commissioner, said the law clearly forbids the use of “state funds” to produce ads or PSAs that feature public officials when they’re a candidate for office.

“We think it is apparent and clear that the governor understands the meaning of ‘state funds,'” Brown said. “He just wants it to mean something that allows him to use state funds to produce candidates PSAs — something the state Legislature said ‘no’ to.”

Sherlock heard the arguments Friday and said he will rule later.

The Montana Republican Party brought the ethics complaint in April 2008 after state staff produced radio announcements on “national ag month.”

In the spots, recorded a day after Schweitzer, a Democrat, filed for re-election, the governor talked about the importance of agriculture, asked people to buy local products and to thank a farmer.

Schweitzer argued that no state money was used.

A hearings officer hired by Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth found that Schweitzer violated the law and recommended a $750 fine. Unsworth agreed with the finding but said additional hearings were needed to determine any sanctions.

Schweitzer has noted that the hearings officer, William Corbett, stated the law was ambiguous.

The Republican Party has argued that if the law was not clear, Schweitzer should not have signed it after the 2005 Legislature passed it.

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