HELENA — Montana's Republican secretary of state told officials to award an emergency $265,000 contract to a printing company owned by a Republican political consultant and former executive of the state GOP for mailers that would fix mistakes in the state's election guide.
The job to print the 471,000 9-inch by 12-inch mailers was awarded Oct. 12 to Jake Eaton's company, Ultra Graphics LLC. The purchase order was included in dozens of documents, emails and descriptions of phone calls obtained by The Associated Press in a public records request about the rush to fix the pamphlet's errors.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton's office insisted that Eaton's company was chosen not because of his political affiliation but because it was the only print shop that could complete the job in the accelerated time frame.
"There was no favoritism," said Dana Corson, Stapleton's director of elections and voter services. "We simply needed the quickest solution for Montana voters who were receiving the absentee ballots at the same time."
Officials with the Department of Administration, which oversaw the process, and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock's office, which approved the purchase order, said the proper procedures were followed but didn't know anything about Ultra Graphics at the time.
"Nobody in the Governor's Office knew at the time Ultra Graphics was owned by Jake Eaton," Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel said. "Our primary concern was making sure the secretary of state fixed their mistake and provided accurate information to Montana voters while minimizing the expense to taxpayers."
Eaton is a political consultant who was executive director of the Montana Republican Party from 2007 to 2008 and chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg's unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 2012. Recently, Eaton made headlines for filing 18 complaints with the state alleging Democrats violated campaign laws in the 2016 elections, which the subjects called frivolous.
Eaton did not return a call seeking comment.
The mistake to be fixed on the election guide involved the description of two ballot initiatives that ask voters to decide whether to raise the state's tobacco tax and increase cleanup standards for mining companies.
The pamphlet didn't include the correct highlights of where new language would be added to state law or the strikeouts where existing law would be deleted.
The error led to a rush order on mailers making the corrections, which were printed and sent to voters on Oct. 12, the day absentee voting began. Eaton's company was sent a check that day for $265,619, which included $204,000 for postage.
The urgency to get the correction to voters before they began returning ballots allowed the secretary of state's office to skip the normal process for awarding contracts. That ensures the job is finished in time but requires the agency to explain the need in writing. The expedited process should still include competitive bidding "as is practicable," according to state law.
Stapleton's elections supervisor, Stuart Fuller, initially suggested Ultra Graphics for the printing job on Oct. 9, though the administration department's State Print and Mail bureau had never contracted with the company before, bureau chief Ryan Bahnmiller said in an internal email to department officials describing his phone conversations with Fuller.
Four companies, including Ultra Graphics, were contacted for the job on Oct. 9, and three submitted bids.
Later that day, Fuller told the administration department that officials at his office had spoken with Ultra Graphics and they could meet all the deadlines, Bahnmiller said.
The next morning, Bahnmiller told Fuller that a Phoenix company had submitted the lowest-cost bid and could meet the timelines specified. Fuller responded that Stapleton's office wanted to proceed with Ultra Graphics because the company was local and voters would receive the mailers faster, Bahnmiller said.
Corson, who spoke for the secretary of state's office on questions about the contract, said both his office and the administration department reached out to print shops and that Ultra Graphics provided the quickest solution.
The request moved up the chain quickly and was approved by administration department Director John Lewis after consulting with Bullock's office.
The Arizona company was eliminated because Stapleton's office determined the extra one or two days it would take to deliver the mailers was unacceptable, administration department spokeswoman Amber Conger said.
"We were trying to meet a time frame on the customer's behalf," she said. "The political affiliation was not a consideration or factor."
Eaton bought Ultra Graphics in 2012, and the company had 32 employees and recorded $5.2 million in sales in 2016, according to Printing News magazine.
The print shop does regular work for Republicans, including designing and printing postcards for the state party's central committee and web hosting for former U.S. Senate candidate Al Olszewski's campaign and for the Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. Eaton is also the senior adviser for the campaign committee.
Ultra Graphics also completed two other smaller jobs for Stapleton's office this year and last year, Conger said.