HELENA — Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte is expected to plead no contest to a charge of misdemeanor assault on Monday at 10 a.m. in Gallatin County Justice Court.
Gianforte's attorneys filed an unopposed motion Thursday for the Monday appearance. The Gallatin County Attorney does not oppose the motion.
Late Wednesday night, Gianforte announced a civil settlement with Ben Jacobs, the Guardian reporter he assaulted on the eve of Gianforte's election as Montana's lone representative in the U.S. House.
In the settlement, Gianforte indicated he would plead no contest to misdemeanor assault charges, which carry a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Jacobs, through a spokesperson, has confirmed he plans to appear in court in Montana if the court date is confirmed for Monday.
On May 24, Gianforte assaulted Jacobs, who entered a room where the then-candidate preparing to give an interview to another reporter. Jacobs tried to ask Gianforte about a health care bill, but Gianforte became enraged and shoved Jacobs down, breaking his glasses. In a recording that Jacobs took, which has been widely circulated since the assault, the reporter can be heard saying Gianforte "body-slammed" him and broke his glasses. Gianforte yells, "Get the hell out of here."
The event brought a frenzy of national media attention to Montana's congressional race, which Gianforte won against Democrat Rob Quist by 6 points. By the time of the assault, a little more than 24 hours before polls closed, more than 68 percent of those who would vote had already done so through early absentee voting.
In the settlement announced Wednesday, Gianforte acknowledged he assaulted Jacobs, apologized for his actions and said he would donate $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The New York-based nonprofit was formed in 1981 to promote press freedom and defend the rights of journalists.
Gianforte's letter also said he understands "the critical role that journalists and the media play in our society" and that he acknowledged "the media have an obligation to seek information."
Gianforte's admitting to a "physical response to (Jacobs') legitimate question" and saying in a letter to Jacobs that "you did not initiate any physical contact with me" is a direct contradiction to a statement the Gianforte campaign released the night of the assault. That statement, sent by Gianforte spokesman Shane Scanlon, said Jacobs grabbed Gianforte’s wrist and pushed both men to the ground, and made a point of calling Jacobs a “liberal journalist” with “aggressive behavior.”
Scanlon did not return calls from two Lee Newspapers reporters on Wednesday night and did not return multiple messages and emails Thursday.
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Jordan Gross, a professor at the law school at the University of Montana, said there are a few reasons someone might admit to a crime publicly but not in court.
"It's one thing to acknowledge in public, 'Yeah, I did something,' but that's different from legal guilt," she said.
One reason is that an admission of guilt in a criminal case can be used in a civil case. The civil settlement announced Wednesday precludes any potential future civil claims.
"It allows the defense to come in and say, 'OK, I'm willing to accept responsibility but I don't want a legal admission on the record that I am legally guilty," Gross said. "In some circumstances they may think the optics are better or there may be collateral consequences to an admission."
Collateral consequences are things like having to list a conviction on a job application, a loss of a license or loss of access to public housing, and are more common in a felony situation.
Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said he could not discuss how Gianforte would plead, but the request that sentencing be held at the same time as the arraignment is an indication.
The no-contest plea has no outcome on sentencing.
A judge can consider Gianforte's apology to Jacobs, as well as his donation to the Committee to Protect Journalists, when considering sentencing, Gross said.
In Montana it is unusual for someone — especially first-time offenders — to get any kind of significant jail time for misdemeanor crimes.
Gross said that though some have raised concerns that Gianforte was getting special treatment because of his status as a wealthy businessman and congressman-elect, she has seen zero evidence that's the case.
"I would hope that people would have more confidence in our judges and our system and our process," she said. "I don't see anything here that would indicate anything out of the ordinary."