Republican-leaning websites Friday posted stories questioning trips that Gov. Steve Bullock and administration officials have taken to Missoula and the Kentucky Derby.
The governor’s office says the trips were, respectively, to conduct state business, and to fulfill Bullock’s role as head of the Democratic Governors’ Association.
Newstalk KGVO's assertion that Bullock also traveled to Puerto Rico is wrong, said Bullock's spokeswoman.
“It did not happen,” Ronja Abel, the governor’s spokeswoman, said. She said the governor has never been to Puerto Rico.
The website posted photos of the governor and some of his staff members at the Kentucky Derby in 2015 and claimed the governor also took another trip in March 2015, "most likely to Puerto Rico."
Bullock and state Commerce Director Meg O'Leary attended the Kentucky Derby last year as part of a Democratic Governors' Association event hosted by Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. Bullock was head of the DGA in 2015.
“Each time the governor goes to a DGA event, he is staffed by a senior-level member of the administration,” Abel said. In a total of three trips to the Derby, he has traveled with Deputy Chief of Staff Ali Bovingdon, former Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin O’Brien, former Chief of Staff Tim Burton, current Chief of Staff Tracy Stone-Manning and O’Leary. The senior staff was there to represent the state’s interests and meet with counterparts from other states, Abel said.
Travel costs were paid for by the association, Abel said, and the state plane was not involved in any way. Abel said an employee’s time on trips like this is a mix of work and comp time. If time is spent on political activities, the employee is not on the state dime, she said.
Montana law bars state officials from political activity at taxpayers' expense.
DGA tax documents show O’Leary received a $1,900 travel check cut by the PAC in March 2015 -- one of more than a dozen such payments, totaling nearly $26,000, the group reported sending to Bullock and members of his inner circle since 2013.
As evidence for its suggestion of a trip to Puerto Rico, KGVO cited an Independent Record story that pointed out that in March 2015, the month O'Leary got the reimbursement, the only DGA activity was in Puerto Rico.
The March payment from the DGA to O'Leary was a reimbursement for the tickets she bought to go to the upcoming Kentucky Derby, and there was no other trip.
Bullock was invited to attend a Paul McCartney concert in August 2014 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula by University of Montana President Royce Engstrom.
“Of course (the governor) is going to attend an event where he’s in the room with people like Larry Simkins, the co-chair of his Main Street Montana project. He met with other economic development offices,” Abel said.
O’Leary flew to Missoula for the concert because of her role as commerce director; Main Street Montana falls under her department, Abel said.
Another website, Republican Uprising, run by Matthew Monforton, a state lawmaker from Bozeman who did not seek re-election, also published a post Friday questioning Bullock’s travel.
Questions surrounding the trips come six months after Bullock first announced he would refund the state for the cost of oft-criticized plane trips he’d taken to campaign stops. And in recent weeks, Montana Republicans have called on Bullock to further reimburse taxpayers for the cost of the Missoula trip.
GOP critics who slammed Bullock’s concert appearance wasted little time in blasting his Derby trip.
“We've seen a governor and now a member of his cabinet abusing state resources to fly to rock concerts, birthday parties and campaign fundraisers,” said Amy Lunde, campaign manager for Republican governor’s office hopeful Greg Gianforte. “What is a cabinet member doing at a dark-money DGA function?
“Meanwhile, revenues are in steep decline, our economy has seen negative economic growth for the last two quarters, and the commerce director is unfairly outsourcing $7 million a year in business to an out of state firm as a gift to a family member of a staffer.”