HELENA — The state’s political-practices commissioner has rejected a GOP ethics complaint against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock over his use of state security during political travels, calling it “frivolous” and without merit.
Jeff Mangan, in a 15-page order signed Monday, said the complaint filed by Montana Republican Party Chair Don Kaltschmidt does “not even state a potential violation of Montana’s Code of Ethics.”
Kaltschmidt’s complaint, filed July 15, accused Bullock of violating the law by using state resources -- his security detail -- while he campaigned for president this year and when he traveled to political events around the country in the previous 18 months.
The complaint said Bullock broke the law that forbids using state resources to promote election of a candidate.
But Mangan said Bullock wasn’t even a presidential candidate until May 14, when he launched his presidential bid, and that the Montana Highway Patrol officers assigned as his security did not engage in any activity “that solicited support for Gov. Bullock’s candidacy.”
In a statement, Kaltschmidt called Mangan's decision "outrageous," and said Bullock's use of publicly funded security officers while he engaged in campaigning or political activities is a "clear abuse of our tax dollars."
"Gov. Bullock should pay back Montanans from all the money he's raised from his new out-of-state friends," Kaltschmidt said.
Bullock has used private donations to pay for his travels and the presidential campaign.
But his security detail’s salaries and expenses are paid by the state Department of Justice.
After Republicans questioned whether the state should be paying for Bullock’s protection while he campaigned, the governor’s office renegotiated the agreement it has with the Justice Department. As of July 2, the campaign agreed to pay the “incidental” expenses for the security detail when it traveled with Bullock while he campaigned, such as their lodging and meals.
Mangan rejected Kaltschmidt’s complaint on several grounds.
He said because Bullock didn’t become a candidate until May 14, any allegations of violations before that date “fail to state a potential violation” of ethics law and are therefore dismissed.
In the months before he became a presidential candidate, he traveled to Iowa and other locales for political events. He funded the travel with a political-action committee, but his security detail usually accompanied him.
Mangan also noted that funding for Bullock’s security is authorized by state law and that the security detail is “properly incidental” to an elected official’s normal duties -- both of which are exceptions under the ethics law forbidding use of state resources for alleged political activity.
Prior ethics violations by state officials have involved the official directing their staff to engage in political activity, Mangan said. The complaint makes no allegation that Bullock directed his security detail to take any actions promoting his candidacy, he said, and therefore doesn’t state a potential violation.
Kaltschmidt didn’t return a message Tuesday asking for comment on Mangan’s ruling.