The Gianforte Family Foundation formed in 2004 as the charitable outlet for the amassing wealth of Bozeman tech entrepreneurs Susan and Greg Gianforte, who grew the nonprofit into Montana's second largest foundation behind only the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, according to a Gazette State Bureau analysis of federal nonprofit records.
In 2005, the Gianforte Foundation made eight gifts totaling $150,384. In 2013, the latest year for which public records are available, they issued 80 grants totaling almost $6 million leaving the foundation with $133 million in assets. The next largest trust, The Bair Ranch Foundation of Billings, held $91 million in assets and gifted $2 million that same year.
Gianforte, now seeking to become Montana governor in this fall's election, has talked little about his social stances, insisting that his campaign is focused on economic development. In the silence, his Democrat opponents have started to point to the foundation's giving as proof of an “out of the mainstream” agenda. Political scientists have described the donations as typical for a socially conservative Republican.
In an interview with the Gazette State Bureau, Gianforte discussed some details of his family’s giving but largely disagreed that it was relevant to his campaign to become governor.
“We’ve been incredibly blessed and we feel an obligation to give back, and that’s the reason we’ve given more than half our income away in the last 10 years and why I am stepping up to offer my services to bring business expertise to get Montana out of being 49th in wages,” he said. “It all stems from the same root of wanting to serve, but they are two distinct, separate areas.”
Asked what voters might learn about the policy stances and worldview of Gianforte the candidate from the spending and advocacy of Gianforte the philanthropist, campaign Spokesman Aaron Flint called the question “flawed, if not outright inappropriate.”
“Why isn't Bullock being asked about his faith, his charitable contributions (or lack thereof), organizations he associates with, and where he goes to church?” Flint wrote in a Friday email. “Greg and Susan donated 55 percent of their income to charity. Over $100 million given to charities — mostly here in Montana. Montanans see this as a good thing. It’s a giant leap to suggest that just because someone gives their own money to a charity, that they will then as a result give taxpayer money to that same charity.”
Although the Gianfortes have given more $100 million to their foundation, only about a third of that has been spent. Flint did not respond to two requests for details on foundation giving in 2014 and 2015. He has previously said that all the family’s personal giving is done through the foundation.
Until Friday, Bullock’s campaign had declined to say whether it would release tax returns and details of the family’s charitable giving as the Gianfortes have done. Jason Pitt, campaign spokesman for Montana Democrats, now says those documents will be released in April after the Bullocks finish their 2015 filings.
Political scientists watching the campaign disagreed with Flint that the foundation’s giving was not fair game for voters to evaluate, describing the gifts as particularly illustrative for a candidate without any prior experience in public office.
“Some of the earliest critiques from the left on this stuff were premature and way overblown and bordering on a kind of intolerance,” University of Montana political scientist Robert Saldin said, referencing statements and blog posts by Democrats late last year that he thought might have focused too closely on Gianforte’s faith. “Now, we’re months into this thing and the primary is approaching. These are legitimate social issue questions. He’s going to have to address them at some point.”
Jeremy Johnson, a Carroll College politics professor, agreed that Democrats could use the giving as fodder in future campaign attacks while voters might start to evaluate the Republican beyond his focus so far on economic issues.
“He has donated to a large number of organizations that all share an agenda to promote conservatism in policy making,” Johnson said. “Although his campaign has not yet discussed policy positions in detail we can infer he has strong ideological convictions based on the sheer number of such donations.”
Of the 395 grants awarded from 2005 to 2013, nearly half went to 52 Christian missions or faith-based social service organizations. Those donations totaled $10.8 million, about a third of the foundation’s spending. Another third, or $11.1 million, was gifted to Bozeman’s Petra Academy, the Christian private school attended by the Gianforte children and where Greg Gianforte serves on the board.
“We support these charities because we believe in the work they’re doing and having an impact in the community. We tend to give to organizations that we have relationships with and where we have confidence in their leadership,” Gianforte said. “We give to hundreds so I don’t want to get into individual charities.”
Others want to do just that.
“This is about the values and priorities that Greg Gianforte would bring to the governor’s office,” Bullock campaign spokesman Eric Hyers said.
The donations that have drawn the most scrutiny in recent months are those that supported organizations advocating on social issues, often in addition to related educational or health programs. Some groups oppose gay marriage, seek to ban or restrict abortions, file lawsuits to defend religious freedoms such as prayer in schools, promote Creationism and denounce evolution, propose transferring federal lands to state control or local trusts, and push for taxpayer-funded vouchers to private schools.
“I don’t see anything that’s surprising for a non-denominational Christian and conservative Republican. That’s in addition to the plenty of apolitical donations to the arts and public universities and the like,” Saldin said. “It does suggest a social conservatism that hasn’t been a prominent part of his campaign.”
Gianforte has spoken briefly about some of the same issues when pressed by media, such as affirming his interest in proposals to transfer management, but not ownership, of federal lands to the state. On other topics, he has declined to discuss details or confirm his stance as a candidate. For instance, he said he is pro-life but refused to talk about whether he would support anti-abortion legislation as governor.
When asked about his charitable giving, Gianforte often emphasizes that IRS rules expressly prohibit private foundations, such as the one organized by his family, from contributing to political causes.
“Every donation has gone to a 501(c)3 for nonpolitical work,” he said.
Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena, said that political spending is narrowly defined in federal tax law primarily to limit or ban donations to campaigns. Depending on how nonprofits are organized, many can still promote policy stances or send report cards to voters that grade candidates on issues in addition to running community programs.
“Nonprofits that are organized to do social welfare can engage fully in communications to the public about their issue. That’s what the majority of nonprofits do,” she said. “These groups can speak loud, speak clear and identify whatever candidate they want to. They’re not limited on speaking, but disclosure requirements kick in when they do identify someone on the ballot.”
With the passage of the Montana Disclose Act in 2015, those nonprofits will have to publicly disclose such spending to the Commissioner of Political Practices during the campaign season. They will have to identify the contributors who paid for political messages, but not those who supported other programmatic or operational costs. An original source could legally be obscured when one nonprofit donates general purpose funding to another nonprofit which then spends on electioneering.
“As long as it mentions a candidate or a race then it is electioneering communication even if it doesn’t take a position for or against a particular candidate,” Commissioner Jonathan Motl said.
To date, none of the nonprofits that received gifts from the Gianforte Foundation and that are known to have spent money on campaign-related issue ads in previous election cycles — such as Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group largely funded by conservative super donors the Koch brothers — have yet registered with the commissioner.
University of Montana political science professor Christopher Muste cautioned that personal priorities, as might be inferred from the foundation’s grants, do not always translate into policy actions.
“Those questions will have to be answered on the campaign trail,” he said. If Gianforte doesn’t elaborate, “it could be a serious issue for moderate and independent voters.”
“He’ll have to address it or risk losing them.”