On Jan. 2, Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton announced he is running for governor in 2020. An employee within the Secretary of State's Office, using a state email address, sent a one-page press release announcing his bid.
The press release was on state letterhead and quoted Stapleton listing his accomplishments as secretary of state, the ships he served on while in the U.S. Navy and his goals “as governor”. That emailed announcement of Stapleton’s candidacy listed an employee in the Secretary of State Office as the contact for more information and listed her state email address.
Montana’s Code of Ethics expressly forbids public officials from using state facilities or personnel for any candidate or ballot issue campaign activities.
Later on Jan. 2, Stapleton said he didn’t have any concerns about the state email use in his announcement. "No — absolutely not. It's not campaigning," Stapleton said in a text message to the Independent Record newspaper.
Stapleton’s denial is concerning. Montanans expect our elected officials to abide by state law — and at least admit mistakes when they make them. But rather than acknowledging his ethical violation, Stapleton dug in.
Stapleton has served in the Montana Legislature, he’s previously been a candidate for three statewide offices and was elected in 2016 as Montana’s top elections official. He cannot claim to be unfamiliar with the state’s ethics law.
If a press release announcing his gubernatorial bid isn’t campaigning, what is it? It’s not part of his duties as chief elections officer, it’s not related to his oversight of business filings or any other secretary of state duty.
On Wednesday, Monica Lindeen, the newly appointed executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, filed an ethics complaint against Stapleton with the Commissioner of Political Practices.
Stapleton could have easily avoided this ethics complaint. It’s not what the press release said, it’s the indisputable fact that he used state email and a state employee’s time to promote his candidacy for governor.
In her one-page complaint, Lindeen wrote that “Corey Stapleton’s conduct constitutes a serious breach of public trust and is clearly prohibited by law.”
Lindeen, a former state lawmaker and two-term state auditor, cited a 2013 Montana Supreme Court ruling that directly addressed use of state facilities in a campaign. In Molnar v. Fox, the court ruled that “It is improper for an elected official to send a campaign email from a State account at any time of the day …”
Lindeen asked the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices to investigate and report his findings. The COPP office told a Lee Montana Newspapers reporter that it will ask Stapleton for information before deciding whether to accept the complaint.
Stapleton continues to set a bad example for Montana elected officials. He should be held accountable — just the same as other public officers and employees bound by the Montana Code of Ethics.