GOP Appeals Schweitzer Ethics Ruling to Judge

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Montana Republican Party is taking its ethics complaint against Gov. Brian Schweitzer to court after the office of the state political practices commissioner dismissed its allegations that the Democratic governor used state resources in 2008 to make public service announcements.

The use of state funds to pay for such announcements is forbidden when a public official is running for office. But Bozeman attorney James Goetz, who was appointed the deputy political practices commissioner in the case, ruled in March that the prohibition didn’t extend to the use of public facilities or the governor’s time.

Schweitzer recorded the 30- and 60-second announcements promoting agriculture at the request of a Lewistown radio station. The ads were sent to radio stations around the state in 2008, when he was running for re-election.

In 2011, the previous commissioner of political practices found Schweitzer had broken ethics laws in the case and a hearings officer recommended that Schweitzer pay a $4,100 fine.

But there was no final order and Jim Murry, the new commissioner of political practices and a former Schweitzer campaign treasurer, sent the case to Goetz for a resolution. Murry said he chose Goetz as an impartial attorney with no campaign links to the governor.

Lee Newspapers State Bureau reports an attorney for the Republican Party asked District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena on Wednesday to use common sense to overturn Goetz’s decision and find that Schweitzer’s taping of the ads violated state law.

“Were state funds used to produce and disseminate these ads?” Erickson asked. “We’re suggesting the statute is self-evident. It includes state funds for wages, facilities and equipment, all of which were used.”

Schweitzer’s attorney, Mike Meloy, called Goetz’s analysis and ruling in the matter “bullet-proof.”

“Somebody finally saw the light and applied the reasonable rule of construction that Mr. Goetz applied,” Meloy said.

The attorney representing the political practices commissioner added that the party’s appeal to the judge’s “common sense” was misguided.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” said Joe Seifert. “My experience is the commonsense argument is often the one advocated by someone for whom reason, analysis and judgment didn’t apply in the case.”

Sherlock promised to issue a decision as soon as he can.