Thursday, August 21, 2008

It's official -- the governor broke the law

It shouldn't have taken the skills of a law professor, months of dragging things out, hours of testimony, and thousands in legal fees to know that the governor broke a law that he himself signed into law when he had state-funded employees using state-owned equipment make public service announcements that included his re-election campaign slogan of "Montana is on the Move."

But, even if the wheels of justice turn slowly, one hopes that they grind exceedingly fine, as the saying goes. And indeed the final judgment was against the governor and a fine was levied. He got off lucky, since he could have been fined $1000 per occurrence, and the ads were sent to multiple radio stations and presumably aired more than once.

The point was whether the governor was wrong -- and the official judgment is that he was. He of course knew he was, and yet he first attempted to bluster his way out of it, and then it appears that he tried some back-door communication with the Political Practices office to mitigate the disaster he saw coming. If so, those efforts may have been successful, since the final judgment was for a symbolic amount of money that will appear to many to be a mere slap on the wrist -- and since the final judgment includes language that refers to ambiguity in the law (although in the final analysis, the legislative intent was not found to be ambiguous.)

The governor gets some ammunition with which to blow more smoke screens to obfuscate the fact that he broke the law. As we have stated before, this could all have gone away with a little humility on the part of the governor and his staff, but they decided to go for broke -- which was a mistake. The worst part of this for the governor was not that he made the ads, it was rather that he attempted, in essence to cover it up by claiming that he really hadn't broken the law, even though the plain and obvious language of the law as interpreted by an ordinary non-lawyer was, well, plain and obvious.

This is the first time that the governor has not been able to skate smoothly around a controversy. This was never going to be a scandal that would break the governor's political fortunes, but it has put a little tarnish on his gleaming armor which had seemed so untouchable. Political death by a thousand cuts starts with a single nick...


Anonymous said...

The Helena Associated press will give him a pass on this. They worship the ground the Governor walks on.

How ironic that his first campaign ad referenced admitting when you are wrong.....

Auntie Lib said...

What - the governor admit when he was wrong? Surely you jest? Here's his response to the ruling as quoted in the Independent Record:

‘‘The narrow issue is, am I allowed as governor to record messages for radio stations while I’m running for governor,’’ Schweitzer said. ‘‘This law professor says the law is ambiguous and the intent of the Legislature cannot be known. On that basis, I agree with him.
‘‘It’s hard to see how there can be a fine of $750 for a law that’s ambiguous.’’

I think we just don't understand. If you're Brian Schweitzer you can't be wrong, so how could he possibly admit to being wrong when it's obvious that it's the law or the legislature or the judge that was wrong - not the governor. LOL

Anonymous said...

He compounded it with sleazy ex parte communications between his staff and his appointee on a quasi judicial matter.

That's as bad as the original law breaking.

David said...

What do you mean, "give him a pass"? The AP reported that it happened. That's the AP's job. What more do you expect?

Montana Headlines said...

I'm afraid that at this point I have to agree with David -- to a point.

I would quibble with the AP reporter saying that he "appeared" to break the law, when the judgment seemed much more definitive. But it is defensible, since the final decision belongs to the Commissioner -- who could choose to ignore it or alter it.

Far more culpable is the Billings Gazette, which buried the story. This was at least a page 1 story for the State/Local section, and it deserved front page coverage, just like Burns and Martz got cover stories for every mis-step they made.

The heroes of this story are the folks at the Montana GOP, who didn't let this one drop, but also as a general rule kept their rhetoric at a respectable tone.

One thing is clear so far -- no apology or admission of wrongdoing will be forthcoming from the governor. And not a single editorial page in Montana will comment on that fact, we would predict.

GeeGuy said...

MH, I don't think we have a "final judgment" at this point.

Montana Headlines said...

Technically true -- Dennis Unsworth has the final word, but it is hard to imagine the conditions under which he would do anything but rubber-stamp this preliminary recommendation.

If he lessens it, he opens himself to the charge of being influenced by the governor. If he makes the penalty or wording more stiff, he risks the ire of the governor.

The recommendation will become the final judgment, pretty much verbatim.

Anonymous said...

Saw a presentation by the Governor's Office of Economic Development this past week that included the title, "Montana is on the Move."

And that's not the only time state documents, department heads, and other state resources have been used to push the Governor's campaign motto. Something stinks there.