This week in Helena, the Legislature's Interim State Administration and Veterans Affairs Committee appropriately carried out its oversight duty by seeking more information about two unusual expenditures in the Montana Secretary of State Office that totaled about $325,000.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton appeared at the committee meeting Tuesday and spoke about his decision to award a $265,000 printing and mailing contract to a Billings business owned by his friend and former Montanan Republican Party executive director Jake Eaton.
“The vendor we used actually was the least expensive option,” Stapleton told the committee.
Unfortunately, that isn’t true. An Arizona company, in fact, made a lower bid for printing a correction mailing by Oct. 12, according to bid documents reviewed by the Associated Press and SAVA committee Chairwoman Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula. Furthermore, Stapleton decided to contract with Eaton’s company under specifications that weren’t put out for bid to any other firm.
Certainly, Stapleton was in a difficult, time-sensitive situation. He told the SAVA Committee that he only learned of the Voter Information Pamphlet errors on Oct. 9 — three days before absentee ballots were going in the mail to voters statewide. The erroneous information pamphlets had already been mailed out.
Stapleton asked the Department of Administration to request bids and received responses from at least four companies. But, as Malek pointed out, he didn’t tap the expertise of the state Print and Mail, which assists state agencies with their printing needs.
As noted in a previous Gazette opinion, correction flyers that arrived in the mail the week after absentee ballots had print so small it was difficult to read — much smaller than the original Voter Information Pamphlet.
The other expenditure in question is a $60,000 contract with Eaton’s wife, attorney Emily Jones, to represent the SOS in a lawsuit challenging the certification of petitions that put the Green Party on the ballot. The SOS lost that challenge by the Montana Democratic Party.
In the Green Party case, Stapleton could have been represented by the Montana Department of Justice, which has a division with attorneys ready and able to represent state government in litigation — at about half the rates Jones billed the SOS, according to Montana Public Radio.
Not only did Republican Stapleton choose to hire an outside attorney, he impugned the competency of DOJ attorneys, and told Montana Public Radio that he would make the same decision if he had to do it over.
Republican Attorney General Tim Fox defended his staff, telling Montana Public Radio in an email that Stapleton made a “political decision to needlessly spend $60,000 on outside counsel.”
Stapleton told the SAVA Committee that he acted in the best interest of voters.
His actions would have better served those public interests if he had tapped the expertise of the dedicated public servants at the DOJ and the state print and mail shop. By going it alone, Stapleton deprived himself and the people of Montana of wise counsel. Stapleton’s spending may have been legal, but it wasn’t smart.
If not for the Associated Press making a public documents request, neither of these payments of public money to longtime Stapleton friends would have been brought to public attention. Montana journalists work to hold government officials accountable for their decisions; it’s a responsibility The Gazette takes seriously.