HELENA — Montana television stations turned down a request Wednesday from Rep. Denny Rehberg’s attorney to yank a new ad by Democratic challenger Dennis McDonald on grounds that it contains false allegations.
The McDonald ad, which began running Tuesday, raises questions about Rehberg’s “dumbest” personal behavior as a congressman. The TV ad uses a mock TV game show in which the host asks a contestant “which of these bad decisions Congressman Denny Rehberg has made is the dumbest.”
The contestant must choose from among these answers: “A. Falling off his horse reportedly drunk on a state visit; B. Suing the Billings Fire Department after putting out his fire; C. Slamming into the rocks in a speed boat with a drunk driver at the helm; D. All of the above.”
The first choice was a reference to Rehberg falling off his horse in Kazakhstan in 2004 when he and then Sen. Conrad Burns led some Montanans on an international trade mission. Rehberg has denied that he was drunk and said that no eyewitnesses have ever stepped forward. McDonald, however, provided news stories based on an anonymous e-mail that claimed Rehberg was drunk.
Rehberg did file a lawsuit earlier this year against the Billings Fire Department for what he said were negligent management decisions in fighting the fire on his family’s land.
The third answer refers to Rehberg being a passenger in a boat piloted by Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, that crashed into rocks at a state park on Flathead Lake in 2009. Barkus, whose blood alcohol content was above the legal limit, faces a criminal trial to start Nov. 29. Rehberg was not charged.
Later Tuesday, Rehberg’s attorney, David B. Cotner of the Datsopoulos, MacDonald & Lind law firm of Missoula, sent a 10-page letter asking managers of six TV stations in Billings, Butte and Missoula to pull the ad.
Cotner provided 19 pages of documentation that he said backed up his claim that McDonald’s TV spot is a “blatantly false, defamatory, indefensible advertisement.”
“At best, the ad is based on speculation and rumor,” Cotner wrote. “At worst, McDonald has acted with intentional disregard for the truth. I respectfully urge you to evaluate the veracity of McDonald’s ad and consider eliminating it from your broadcast.”
“To put it in clear and simple language, your station will be exposing itself to significant legal liability if it airs these advertisements now that it knows the claims contained in them are false,” Cotner said.
But four television station managers for KULR and KTVQ in Billings and KPAX and KECI in Missoula, reached by the GazetteState Bureau, said they considered Cotner’s request but decided to continue to air McDonald’s ad. They cited a letter from Gregory MacDonald, president and CEO of the Montana Broadcasters Association, to Cotner.
MacDonald said that under federal law, “candidates for federal office are guaranteed virtually unrestricted access to airtime on broadcast stations.”
“Further, stations may not, except in certain extremely rare cases — notably obscenity or inciting a crime — censor or alter candidate ads in any way,” MacDonald said. “Because the law requires stations to carry political ads and prohibits the alteration of those ads, it also indemnifies stations from any prosecution relating to those ads specifically including defamation, slander and libel.”
The Broadcasters Association executive said this opinion applies to ads purchased by candidates or their authorized committees and not those placed by third parties.
Erik Iverson of Missoula, a senior adviser to Rehberg, said the campaign is evaluating the advice the TV stations received from MacDonald.
“Dennis McDonald continues to demonstrate that he will say anything to get elected, including things that are demonstrably false,” Iverson said. “The bottom line is the ad is inaccurate, it’s false. We have proven it false. There is no place for these kinds of reckless allegations in Montana politics.”
McDonald defended his ad Wednesday.
“We have provided references for our ad and feel it’s a fair representation of the personal behavior of our current congressman,” McDonald said.
Instead of highlighting his own accomplishments in his own ads, Rehberg is now trying to contact TV stations around the state to get them to pull this ad, his opponent said.
“Rehberg is like a grasshopper on a cold Montana morning,” McDonald said. “He can’t jump fast enough to stay ahead of the truth, so he summoned his campaign team to try to hide the truth from Montana voters.”