HELENA — In the hours leading up to the second debate between Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who is running for re-election, and Republican businessman Greg Gianforte, both parties pulled the dust off some attacks from earlier in the campaign.
Since last spring Bullock and Gianforte have traded jabs over a lawsuit Gianforte filed to remove an easement that provided access to the Gallatin River near his home and the governor’s use of a private email account to conduct state business and the deletion of emails from Bullock’s state account from when he was attorney general.
Bullock has used the lawsuit to paint Gianforte as anti-public lands, and Gianforte has used the email flap to tie the governor to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was in hot water earlier this year over her use of a personal email server during her time as secretary of state.
The Montana Democrats on Monday released an email sent in March 2008 with a passage that says Gianforte, a tech entrepreneur, had gated and put up signs to keep the public off an easement that allowed access to the Gallatin River near his home in Bozeman.
Gianforte has said he never actively blocked access to the easement.
Correspondence released Monday by the Fish, Wildlife and Parks department contained an email from then-regional parks manager Jerry Walker saying the Gianfortes “fenced the easement and actively excluded the public from accessing this property.”
Additional documents included an April 2008 letter Bozeman attorney Art Wittich sent on behalf of several landowners near the access area asking the department to “relinquish the easement in order to avoid litigating this issue.”
Gianforte’s East Gallatin LLC sued Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in May 2009 to remove an easement that provided public access along the East Gallatin River, arguing that users were damaging adjacent land, the original 1993 agreement by a previous owner was invalid and that the public had sufficient access via two other nearby sites. The complaint was filed to create a foothold for a case, but the papers were never served to the agency.
In May, Gianforte’s campaign defended the candidate.
“Greg and Susan have been strong supporters of stream access,” spokesman Aaron Flint wrote in an email. “Greg and Susan have always welcomed anglers on their property and generally have three to five cars everyday in the summer accessing the river on their property just north of Bozeman.”
On Monday, he said Democrats were just trying to revive an old, settled issue and distract from discussion of the state’s poor economy. Flint said the fence had been there when the Gianfortes bought the property.
“It had been a barbed wire fence. They improved it and put in a post fence because they had horses on the property,” he said.
Standing outside Petro Hall on the Montana State University Billings campus where the gubernatorial debate would be held hours later, GOP Chairman and legislator Jeff Essmann announced Monday that he was sending a letter asking Bullock “to preserve email records in his office related to six recent noteworthy events that have come out of that office and are subject to some public scrutiny right now.”
He raised questions about the resignation of former Lt. Gov. Angela McLean, funds spent by the Department of Public Health and Human Services that employees had flagged as potentially illegal, alleged retaliation against agency employees who raised questions about spending, travel on the state plane to campaign stops or events that were not clearly for a governmental purpose, travel with state employees related to his tenure as president of the Democratic Governors Association and his role in the decision to award a $7 million contract to a Wisconsin firm for marketing state tourism that Republicans have said has family ties to a state employee.
“The reason this letter is necessary is the fact that it has been reported that when he departed the attorney general’s office Bullock deleted all emails of himself and his senior staff,” Essmann said. “We have a national conversation going on about Hillary Clinton deleting some of her emails from her service at the state department, but Steve Bullock has deleted all of his from when he was serving as attorney general.”
The Great Falls Tribune has previously reported that emails from Bullock’s tenure as attorney general from 2009 to 2013 were deleted without any record of the office seeking prior approval from the state records retention committee as outlined in state policy.
Essmann argued that the deletion “violated Montana statutes and record retention policy,” critical components of the public’s right to know enshrined in the state Constitution.
“How do you exercise the right know if public documents are hidden or destroyed? You can’t. This is a serious matter and I hope it’s attended to,” he said. “For one, he should apologize for violating the law. And he should promise not to do it again.”
Essmann said the party has no pending records requests for emails from the governor’s office at this time even about the events listed in his letter.
Moments into Essman’s press conference Monday, the Gianforte campaign emailed a statement calling for “an immediate investigation.”
“This appears to be a massive breach of the public trust,” Gianforte said in the written statement. “It’s time career politicians are held accountable.”
Montana Democratic Party Spokesman Jason Pitt accused Gianforte and the GOP of lying.
“Greg Gianforte will make up anything to bury the news that he has just been caught misleading voters yet again,” Pitt said, referencing the easement dispute.
Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel said Essmann did not have the facts of the situation and that the governor had done nothing wrong. The emails in question qualify as a type of public information that is not subject to the state’s most stringent records retention rules that Essmann and others have cited, according to the Department of Administration's information technology department.
“Transparency is one of Gov. Bullock’s highest priorities. But let’s be clear, the governor did not ‘delete’ emails from an account that was created eight years ago,” she said in a written statement. “The email account no longer exists, just like accounts from former Attorney Generals Marc Racicot or Joe Mazurek no longer exist, and thousands of other state employees who move between branches or leave state government whose accounts are ended.”
Asked if Essmann knew about the practice of previous attorney generals, the party chairman shifted focus back to Bullock.
“Well, it clearly wasn’t permitted by law,” he said. “Steve Bullock was at the time the chief law enforcement officer for the state. Of anybody, he should’ve been aware of what the requirements of state law were and followed them and I don’t think he did.”
But staff from the Department of Administration, which manages state email accounts, said the deletion of emails from Bullock’s tenure as attorney general is par for the course.
“Closing an email account is normal procedure when an employee leaves State employment or moves between branches or agencies,” Montana’s Chief Information Security Officer Lynne Pizzini said in an emailed statement. “The state does not store emails from thousands of former state employees and former elected elected officials due to the high volume and cost of that storage.”
Although Essmann said he was aware of the deletions as early as 2014 when Republican Tim Fox succeeded Bullock as attorney general, the GOP chairman said the significance of the matter only became apparent to him recently. He dismissed the suggestion that Monday’s announcement was only a campaign stunt.
“At the time, I don’t think I realized the scope of the deletions nor had it been publicly reported,” he said. “I think we’ve got some serious issues going forward if some of these allegations turn out to be true they’ll have serious consequences.”