HELENA — U.S. Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte agreed to a civil settlement Wednesday to head off a potential lawsuit by the reporter he attacked last month, issuing a written apology in which he backtracks his original account of events and promises to make a $50,000 donation to a nonprofit that works to protect journalists from violence worldwide.
The agreement was reached between the Montana politician and their reporter Ben Jacobs, the Guardian first reported. The Britain-based newspaper has a large presence and online following in the United States.
“I have taken full responsibility for my actions and both publicly and personally apologized to Mr. Ben Jacobs," Gianforte said in a statement issued Wednesday by spokesman Shane Scanlon. "Ben has accepted my apology and we are both ready to move on."
In the letter, Gianforte wrote: “My physical response to your legitimate question was unprofessional, unacceptable, and unlawful. As both a candidate for office and a public official, I should be held to a high standard in my interactions with the press and the public. My treatment of you did not meet that standard.”
The donation will go to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit based in New York formed in 1981 to promote press freedom and defend the rights of journalists.
Gianforte also said in the letter that Jacobs "did not initiate any physical contact with me." That contradicts a statement issued by his campaign spokesman in the hours after the May 24 attack on the night before Election Day. He did not take direct ownership of the false statement or explain why his campaign issued the lie, instead referencing it vaguely in the letter as "anyone's statements to the contrary."
Jacobs said in an emailed statement that he hopes the settlement agreement allows everyone, including the nation, to move forward.
“I have accepted Mr. Gianforte's apology and his willingness to take responsibility for his actions and statements," he wrote. "I hope the constructive resolution of this incident reinforces for all the importance of respecting the freedom of the press and the First Amendment and encourages more civil and thoughtful discourse in our country."
Jacobs will not receive any money as part of the agreement.
Scanlon acknowledged a request to talk and asked for questions by email, but did not answer them Wednesday evening. Gianforte did not return a call for comment.
Gianforte also faces a criminal misdemeanor assault citation for the attack.
Earlier Wednesday, a Bozeman judge granted an extension requested by attorneys for Gianforte to appear in court.
The judge did not set a date for Gianforte's appearance, meaning the Republican congressman could appear in court any Monday, Wednesday or Friday between now and June 20. Those are the days Justice Court is in session.
Gallatin County Justice Court Judge Rick West signed the order Tuesday, the same day attorneys for Gianforte filed the motion for an extension.
The motion also said "the parties are currently exploring a settlement'' of the case and that the extension was not opposed by the state. County Attorney Marty Lambert clarified Wednesday that means Gianforte and the state are negotiating a plea agreement related to the criminal citation.
The civil agreement with Jacobs included a requirement that the journalist email Lambert about the criminal case. In that message to the county attorney, Jacobs said he does not object to Gianforte entering a "no contest" plea in the pending civil case rather than a guilty plea, according to a copy provided by Scanlon.
Gianforte, who became wealthy starting a customer-service platform in Bozeman that he eventually sold to Oracle for $1.8 billion, was cited for misdemeanor assault, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine, for an attack on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs at a campaign event on May 24, about 24 hours before Gianforte was elected to the U.S. House.
An audio recording from the altercation details Jacobs trying to ask Gianforte a question about a health care bill, then a scuffle, followed by Jacobs saying Gianforte “body-slammed” him and broke his glasses. Gianforte can be heard yelling “Get the hell out.”
Jacobs’ description of what happened was confirmed by accounts of others in the room, including a reporter for Fox News who saw the altercation.
But just after it happened, the Gianforte campaign sent out a press release saying Jacobs grabbed Gianforte’s wrist and pushed both men to the ground, and made a point of calling Jacobs a “liberal journalist” with “aggressive behavior.”
Gianforte refused repeatedly in an interview with MTN Friday to say why his campaign released what appears to be a false statement about the altercation. His letter to Jacobs Wednesday likewise does not address the issue.
He did say in his letter that he was sorry for the "unwanted notoriety" his assault created for Jacobs and acknowledged that the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of the press. He said journalists play "a critical role" in society and said those rights are "fundamental to who we are as a nation and the way government is accountable to the people."
"I also know that civility in our public discourse is central to a productive dialogue on issues. I had no right to respond the way I did to your legitimate question about health care policy. You were doing your job," he wrote to Jacobs.
Gianforte defeated Democrat Rob Quist last month in the race to fill Montana’s lone U.S. House seat, vacated when Ryan Zinke became Secretary of the Interior.
Gianforte's attorneys are William Mercer, with Holland and Hart law firm in Billings, and Todd Whipple, with Whipple Law Offices in Bozeman. Mercer was the U.S. Attorney for Montana from 2001-2009 and also served briefly as acting associate attorney general.
Gianforte's attorneys last week received a set of documents containing confidential criminal justice information that Lambert said cannot be made public.
That set of documents includes the citation, a 17-page case summary report, 16 pages of reports from three detectives, three pages of medical records, a sketch of the place where the altercation occurred, the arrest report, copies of media coverage, 14 more pages of handwritten notes from various sources, three pages of names and addresses of witnesses, the violent crime victim notice of rights forms, five pages of teletype history records and a release form and 40 pages of records from Bozeman Deaconess Hospital.
Gianforte also on Friday filed to run for re-election in 2018, according to Federal Election Commission records.