U.S. Rep Steve Daines is being asked to distance himself from the Montana Marine Corps League.
League members told The Gazette they were surprised to see their photo included in a mailer outlining Daines' work for military veterans. The league characterized the mailer as a political brochure. It wrote Daines' staff this week asking the congressman to clarify that he didn't intend to exploit Marine League members.
Contacted by The Gazette on Friday, Daines spokesman Alee Lockman said the mailer wasn't campaign-related, but rather an update about the congressman's work on veterans issues. Daines' office has been in contact with the League several times to answer questions, she said.
“Steve strongly values active and open communication with the people of Montana and regularly sends official updates to Montanans about issues that are important to them," Lockman said. "Given the ongoing issues facing the Department of Veterans Affairs and Montanan veterans’ access to the services they deserve, Steve believes it is important to provide Montana’s veterans with information about how he was working to bring accountability to the VA, legislation Congress was taking on to address these problems and share photos from recent official events and meetings that Steve has participated in with Montana’s veterans.”
The mailer, prepared and published at taxpayer expense, depicts Republican Daines offering his hand to members of the Eugene Sara Detachment of the Marine Corps League in Billings. A caption below the image reads: "Rep. Steve Daines discusses veteran's issues with Marine Corps veterans."
The veterans say the discussion never happened.
"We don't normally go to meetings to discuss politics with weapons," said Joe Aguilar, who pointed out that one of the Marines in the background is holding a gun.
Aguilar and fellow Marine James Borner say the Marines featured on the mailer were performing a color guard on March 12 at Billings Logan International Airport for veterans returning from an Honor Flight trip the WWII monument in Washington, D.C. The armed Marine in the photograph is holding a ceremonial rifle.
The Marine League is concerned because the group doesn't endorse candidates or political parties, Borner said. League members who break the rule can be disciplined. The group, which conducts the annual Toys for Tots charity drive, as well as ceremonial color guard services, doesn't want the public to assume it supports Rep. Daines.
"The unauthorized photographic use of these members in uniform while in honorable performance of official league duty will certainly produce an impression to some that our organization is supporting a political candidate — or at the very least granted permission to be used in a political campaign brochure," said Steve Tozzi, League adjutant paymaster, in a letter to Daines' staff.
Daines' staff took the photograph of the Marine League members and the congressman, Lockman said.
The mailer is not campaign literature, although it was sent out as Daines is campaigning for the U.S. Senate. The mailer does not openly solicit votes or mention Daines' campaign. It lists Daines' congressional work on veterans' issues. The mailer was issued by the United States House of Representatives, which allows members to send out informative literature at taxpayer expense under franking laws.
Franking laws are very specific about what can be contained in an informational mailer, Lockman said. The rules even cover caption content. The photo caption couldn't simply state that Daines was speaking to veterans or shaking hands, it had to include the subject matter — veterans issues, even casually discussed.