By MATT VOLZ
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The head of the Montana Democratic Party on Thursday asked for a congressional ethics investigation into whether Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte lied to the police and the public when he assaulted a reporter last year.
The request by the party’s executive director, Nancy Keenan, comes exactly one year after Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs said Gianforte “body slammed” him for asking a question the day before Gianforte won a special election for Montana’s only U.S. House seat.
Gianforte eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and said Jacobs did nothing wrong. But Gianforte initially told police that Jacobs instigated the attack, and his campaign spokesman at the time, Shane Scanlon, released a statement saying the same thing.
Keenan said Thursday that Gianforte has never owned up to lying to the police or the public, and he has never been held accountable for those statements.
“It’s a matter of character for me,” Keenan said in an interview with The Associated Press. “If we can’t trust him in telling the truth to the cops, then how do we trust him on health care policy, how do we trust him on public lands?”
Gianforte’s false statements are violations of House ethics rules that require him to “conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House,” according to the complaints Keenan filed with the House Committee on Ethics and the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.
It does not matter that the assault and the statements were made before Gianforte was elected or sworn in, Keenan said. She noted that a Senate ethics investigation was launched against U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., over sexual misconduct allegations from before he was a senator.
“A lot of things happened before people were members of Congress and they were still called to the carpet for it,” Keenan said. “This case is no different.”
Gianforte has perpetuated the lie since he’s been in office, including having his communications director, Travis Hall, give a statement to the AP last fall stating that “no one was misled” about the attack, Keenan said.
Hall declined to comment on Keenan’s complaint. He cited as the reason a cease-and-desist letter sent to Gianforte by Jacobs’ attorney last fall in response to Hall’s “no one was misled” comment.
In the letter, attorney Geoffrey Genth told the congressman and his staff that Gianforte repeatedly misled law enforcement and the public and warned them to stop making “false and defamatory statements” about Jacobs.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Erin Collins said in a statement that Keenan’s complaint is a desperate attempt by Democrats to divert attention from their “lackluster lineup” of candidates in this year’s elections.
“While the Democratic Party attempts to waste taxpayers’ money on this wild goose chase, Congressman Gianforte will continue to work tirelessly in Montanans’ best interest,” Collins said.
The committee and the independent office, which refers ethics matters to the committee, will review the request but are not obligated to launch a probe simply because the request was made.
Five Democrats are competing for the party’s nomination to challenge Gianforte in November’s election. Keenan shrugged off any suggestion that the complaints are a campaign stunt.
“He continues to not tell the truth. It’s fundamentally about honesty,” she said.
Witnesses told investigators that Gianforte threw Jacobs to the ground and punched him after complaining earlier in the day about “duplicitous” campaign coverage by the Guardian and BuzzFeed News, according to police documents.
Gianforte told investigators that Jacobs grabbed his wrist and spun, pulling Gianforte on the ground on top of him. Scanlon’s statement also said Jacobs grabbed Gianforte by the wrist.
Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert declined to file any additional state criminal charges related to Gianforte’s initial statements.
Gianforte paid a fine, completed 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of counseling for anger of management.
He also apologized to Jacobs and donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists under a settlement with the reporter to avoid a civil lawsuit.