Gov. Steve Bullock listens during a briefing on the Lolo Peak Fi

Gov. Steve Bullock listens during a briefing on the Lolo Peak fire recently.

Thom Bridge,Thom.Bridge@Helenair

Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. 

But fool us five times — that's completely and totally on you, Gov. Steve Bullock.

Last Friday, Montana's Commissioner of Political Practices settled a complaint with the governor's re-election campaign which failed to report Bullock's use of the state plane in connection with election-related stops. Bullock and his campaign chalked the matter up as "an error." 

But not filing the reports correctly didn't happen once or twice. Or three times. Or four. It happened five times. 

Once is a mistake, five times is a pattern. At best, it shows a bumbling incompetence for a man who has run successful statewide campaigns for years. We doubt that Bullock's campaign was really that clueless.

Instead, we think this is part of a calculated political game Bullock played to use a state resource to fit his own agenda, knowing that by the time the reporting caught up to him, the matter would be much ado about something in the past. 

In simple terms, he duped us and the leftover cash paid what amounted to a minor slap on the wrist — $3,000 — for the very rich convenience of jetting around in a state plane. 

Bullock didn't just use the state plane on a couple of trips. He used it on 36 — that's right, three dozen — trips in which he scheduled fundraising or campaign events after some pretty questionable official business trips. In one case, that official business meant coming to Billings to make peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with middle schoolers. In another case, he went out, looked at a bridge, then went to a campaign event. Surely Montana's fate doesn't hinge on Bullock's ability as a sandwich artist.

In other words, some of those events look contrived so that he could reimburse the state a pittance for the use of a plane which he couldn't otherwise afford. And that's important because it seems to be a repetition of a pattern with Bullock: He uses the state plane when he can get away with it, not because he needs to. And, he accepts a slap on the wrist from Montana's top political cop because the token fine and amount of cash was a lot easier than the public scrutiny those trips would have raised during the campaign.

While the practice of combining campaigning with state business is not illegal, its appearance is terrible. It looks contrived and sneaky. Remember, the problem was in the reporting of the trips by the campaign. 

On one hand, a careful reading of the settlement by Jeff Mangan, the commissioner, would seem to be some technical violations of campaign law. But when you realize that Bullock has previously used the plane to fly from Helena to Deer Lodge (a short trip by Montana standards in a car) or flown to Missoula to see a Paul McCartney concert, we're left to believe that Bullock feels that he's entitled to the perk.

Bullock's spokeswoman said that Bullock "was happy to correct the error." 

Of course he was — after he won and after getting the discounted convenience of campaigning in part with state property. Who wouldn't be happy? After all, his campaign wound up paying less than $4,600 for 36 flights. Try booking 36 round-trip, on-demand flights anywhere in Montana for that amount. 

The spokesperson also tried to paint Bullock out as a champion of transparency and information which seems laughable when the exact reason for the fine is because of repeatedly (five times) failing to file a report correctly. That's about as transparent as the smoke-filled skies over Montana this summer. 

Keep in mind that it is Bullock's office which continues to fight and stall when it comes to releasing email and texts of the governor and his senior staff. When we see things like incorrectly filed reports on the state plane, it makes wonder if there's a more calculated and sinister reason for the stalling and delays.

We can't figure out what's worse: That Bullock, the state's chief executive and former top lawyer, couldn't master election rules, or that he continued to use the state plane for political purposes even after he'd been repeatedly criticized. 

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