Public resources and electioneering don’t mix

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Gov. Steve Bullock came under scrutiny last month in an ethics complaint filed by the Montana Republican Party for his alleged use of public resources to campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. The GOP’s complaint took issue with a Montana Highway Patrol security detail that travels with the governor during his out-of-state campaign trips. The complaint argued that using public resources for campaigning violated a Montana ethics code that prevents public officers from using “public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel or funds” for election purposes.

Montana’s political practices commissioner ultimately dismissed the GOP’s complaint, writing last week that there was no evidence to support the claims. Earlier in July, Bullock had reached a deal with Attorney General Tim Fox to keep the security detail for his campaign trips, so long as the governor’s campaign reimburses the state.

But this isn’t the first time Bullock has faced question about mixing public resources for campaign purposes.

In 2017, Bullock took heat for his use of the state plane for work and campaigning. In that case, the governor agreed to reimburse the state and pay a fine. Then-Montana GOP spokesman Shane Scanlon said at the time, “It’s simply wrong for Gov. Bullock to campaign on the taxpayers’ dime.”

We couldn’t agree more. However, the gray area of separating official business from electioneering isn’t new, nor is it exclusive to one party or the other.

In fact Fox, who is running as a Republican for Montana governor, was scrutinized for a June trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. Upon returning from El Paso, Fox posted on his campaign’s social media sites photos and videos of his trip. The state Department of Justice paid $2,776 for Fox and Highway Patrol Col. Tom Butler’s travel expenses, the Associated Press reported. Fox’s campaign denied that the trip was for political purposes, and said that no state resources were used from the border trip to promote his campaign.

To be clear, Fox wasn’t found to be in violation of any ethics codes, but his trip certainly highlighted the razor thin line presented to public officers who are also political candidates.

A number of Montana public officers campaigning for election in 2020 will likely be faced with similar scenarios. Along with Bullock and Fox, Lt. Governor Mike Cooney, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton and Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale are all seeking election. These candidates and their respective campaign managers and treasurers would be wise to take extra care in keeping a clean balance sheet that clearly separates official work from political aspirations.

And when in doubt, they should err on the side of the people they serve. Their constituents — ahem, taxpayers — expect nothing less.

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