HELENA - Gov. Brian Schweitzer has filed suit to derail a long-simmering Republican Party complaint that accuses him of improperly using state resources to tape a radio ad featuring himself while he was a candidate last year.
Political Practices Commissioner Dennis Unsworth last year ruled that Schweitzer violated state law, and then extended the case to examine other issues.
This week, Schweitzer, a Democrat, sued Unsworth and the Montana Republican Party, asking a state district judge to rule that the governor did not violate state law by taping the public service announcement ad.
The lawsuit also asks District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena to declare the ethics law unconstitutionally vague, to rule that it's not enforceable and to block the proceeding before Unsworth while the lawsuit is settled.
The Republican Party on Friday blasted the lawsuit as an attempt by Schweitzer to deny responsibility for breaking state ethics law.
"He has attempted to shirk responsibility in this matter at every turn and is now showing disregard for process and procedure," party spokeswoman Alden Downing said.
Sarah Elliott, communications director for the governor, said Friday that the law is "confusing and ambiguous" and that the constitution precludes anyone from being sanctioned for violating a law that is unclear. The lawsuit attempts to clear up the issue, she said.
Elliott also said no taxpayer funds were used to broadcast the ad, which was requested by a Lewistown radio station to promote agriculture and farming in Montana. It was aired last March free of charge, as a public service announcement.
Unsworth said Friday that he believes state ethics law prohibits elected officials from using taxpayer dollars to promote their candidacy.
"The governor disagrees, and the law allows him an opportunity to argue that disagreement before a judge," he said in a statement. "I regret that this dispute couldn't be resolved quickly or amicably."
The dispute stems from a pair of radio PSAs taped by the governor in early March 2008, one day after he filed to run for re-election. Schweitzer talked about the importance of agriculture and asked people to thank a farmer during "National Ag month."
He also said "Montana is on the move," a phrase he has used in campaign statements and literature.
State Agriculture Department staff and Elliott helped record them.
The Republican Party filed a complaint a month later, saying Schweitzer had violated ethics laws by using public funds to produce a PSA featuring himself while he was a candidate for office.
After a hearing last August, a hearings officer hired by Unsworth said the governor had violated the law, although he did say the law was ambiguous about whether using "state funds" meant any use of public resources. He also recommended a $750 fine.
Unsworth adopted the conclusion that the law had been violated but didn't close the case. He said the law was not ambiguous and asked the governor and the Republican party to discuss whether more than one violation had occurred and whether the governor should pay the cost of the proceeding.
The lawsuit said the law forbidding the use of "state funds" to produce the ad doesn't prohibit the use of "public time, facilities, equipment, supplies or personnel."
Schweitzer has said he spent no tax dollars on the spot, although state staff did spend a few minutes helping prepare and distribute it.