Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer did not violate state law by taping public service announcements shortly after filing as a candidate for re-election in 2008, a state District Court judge ruled Monday.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena upheld the March 2012 decision by deputized Political Practices Commissioner James Goetz of Bozeman in favor of Schweitzer and against the Montana Republican Party.
Political Practices Commissioner Jim Murry removed himself from the case because he was at one time treasurer of a Schweitzer political organization. Murry appointed Goetz to hear the case.
At issue in the case was whether Schweitzer broke state law in early March 2008 when he recorded one 30-second and one 60-second public service announcement (PSA) for radio promoting Montana agriculture.
Republicans accused Schweitzer of violating part of a section of law that prohibits a candidate who has filed for office from using or permitting the use of state funds for any advertisement in a newspaper, on radio or on television.
“There is no evidence that the PSAs were ever in a newspaper, on the radio or on television,” Sherlock said, adding. “Since there is no evidence that the PSAs were ever broadcast on the radio, it cannot be held that the governor violated (that section of law).”
In response, Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, said: ”We strongly disagree with the court’s conclusion that there was no violation because the ads never aired. The whole case was brought because people heard the ads on the radio. That evidence is in the very first document filed by the party, the administrative complaint.”
Sherlock cited separate affidavits by Schweitzer’s former communications director and the public information officer for the state Agriculture Department that KXLO, a Lewistown radio station, requested the PSAs from the governor. Schweitzer spent 15 minutes recording them, used state facilities, buildings and equipment, including a recorder, the Agriculture Department official said.
In his decision, Sherlock said, “Simply put, the Legislature, if it wanted to ban public officials from using their time, facilities, equipment or supplies in the creation of a PSA, should have and could have clearly stated so in Section (4)(a) (of the law),” Sherlock said.
Since the Legislature clearly used those words in other parts of the law, the failure to use them in the section under dispute “demonstrates that the Legislature may well have intended something different than public time, facilities and equipment in creating Section (4)(a),” Sherlock said.
The PSAs were sent to a number of radio stations across Montana.
“While it may be natural to assume that if one sends out 41 PSAs to an equal number of radio stations, that at least one of them would have been broadcast, there is no evidence in this case that the PSAs were ever aired on any radio station,” Sherlock said.
The case has been before four political practices commissioners, with the first commissioner, Dennis Unsworth, ruling against Schweitzer. It has been in and out of court several times.
Schweitzer left the governor’s office on Jan. 7 when Gov. Steve Bullock succeeded him.
“This case began its leisurely, but somewhat tortured, journey down the stream of litigation when a complaint was filed with the commissioner of political practices by the MRP (Montana Republican Party) on April 8, 2008,” Sherlock wrote.