BOZEMAN, Mont. (CN) – Montana Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte pleaded guilty Monday to misdemeanor charges that he body-slammed a Guardian reporter on the eve of his special election victory, agreeing to community service and avoiding jail time.
Gianforte, a Republican, defeated Democrat Rob Quist by a narrow margin May 24 to win Montana’s single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Gianforte, 56, is expected to be sworn in later this month.
On the night before the special election, Gianforte reportedly threw Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, to the floor at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters in Bozeman, Mont.
Jacobs had asked Gianforte a question about President Donald Trump’s health care policy when Gianforte allegedly grabbed Jacobs by the wrists and threw him to the ground.
On Monday, Bozeman Municipal Judge Rick West ordered Gianforte to complete 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger-management classes. He was also fined $385.
If Gianforte doesn’t violate the terms of his sentence in six months, he can file a motion with the judge to have the case dismissed.
Speaking at the sentencing Monday in Bozeman municipal court, Jacobs said the incident began with his attempt to ask Gianforte about the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimate for the Republican health care bill, dubbed the American Health Care Act.
“I have asked questions of hundreds of politicians: congressmen, senators and even the man who is now our president,” Jacobs said in the courtroom. “Mr. Gianforte’s response was to slam me to the floor and start punching me.”
Gianforte’s actions “thrust me into a national spotlight I did not seek or desire,” Jacobs said.
Gianforte initially denied causing the assault, and his spokesperson said after the incident it was actually Jacobs who instigated the incident. In a letter to Jacobs dated June 1, Gianforte retracted his accusation that it was Jacobs who started the confrontation.
As part of a settlement with Jacobs last week, Gianforte said he would donate $50,000 to a journalism advocacy group and would enter a no-contest plea at the sentencing.
In a press conference after the sentencing, Gianforte, with his wife Susan at his side, told reporters he had personally apologized to Jacobs.
“He has accepted my apology and I’m grateful for that,” the representative-elect said. “I look for to putting this behind me. I look forward to going to work in Washington. I’m excited to get to work.”
Gianforte said he accepts the sentence, which kept him out of jail and allowed him to avoid having to take a booking photo.
“This is not a proud moment,” he said. “Susan and I have raised our family in this community. It’s important to understand the work we’ve done and the people we’ve interacted with. People who work with me know me. I acted in a way that isn’t consistent with my behavior in the past.”
In Jacobs’ recording of the May 24 interview, which was posted on The Guardian’s website, Gianforte can be heard yelling at Jacobs before crashing sounds. Jacobs can be heard saying his glasses were broken and he wanted to call the police.
“I’m sick and tired of you guys,” a voice identified as Gianforte’s says on the recording. “The last guy who came in here you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here … get the hell out of here!”
Gianforte did not respond to requests for statements the night of the assault, but released an apology after election results showed him as the clear winner.
“Tonight we won a victory for all Montanans,” Gianforte said at the time. “Tonight Montanans sent a wake up call to the Washington, D.C. establishment. Montanans said Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi can’t call the shots in Montana. Montanans said we need to drain the swamp … and we have a lot of work to do. Hard work is the way we get things done and sometimes hard work is born out of hard lessons.”
Last week, journalism advocacy groups – including PEN America, the Society for Professional Journalists, Free Press and Reporters Without Borders – filed an ethics complaint against Gianforte over the incident with Jacobs.
The press groups filed their complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent agency within Congress, and wrote to the House Ethics Committee regarding its obligation to open an investigation within 30 days of any House member being charged with a crime.
The groups also wrote to President Trump, expressing concern that the White House’s treatment of the media is inciting physical violence against reporters.
Gianforte replaces Ryan Zinke, a Montana native who was elected to the U.S. House two years ago. Zinke resigned in March to become President Trump’s secretary of the interior.
Gianforte said he will announce his staff in the next few days.
Gianforte, a wealthy businessman from New Jersey who founded RightNow Technologies, was running for Montana’s only U.S. House seat against Rob Quist, a singer/songwriter making his first entrance into politics.
Gianforte had lost the Montana gubernatorial election in November to Democrat Steve Bullock. He will face another election test in 18 months in the primary election for his U.S. House seat, and has already filed for re-election.
Gianforte defeated Quist 190,502 to 169,203. Libertarian Mark Wicks received 21,683 votes.
Gianforte had held a slim, double-digit poll lead going into Election Day and that margin was trimmed even further after reports of the assault, giving Democrats a glimmer of hope of regaining the Montana House seat, which the party has not held since 1991.
In his letter to Jacobs, which was posted on The Guardian’s website, Gianforte said, “I understand the critical role that journalists and the media play in our society.
“Protections afforded to the press through the Constitution are fundamental to who we are as a nation and the way government is accountable to the people. I acknowledge that the media have an obligation to seek information. I also know that civility in our public discourse is central to a productive dialogue on issues,” he said. “I had no right to respond the way I did to your legitimate question about healthcare policy. You were doing your job.”
“In the hope that perhaps some good can come of these events, I am making a $50,000 contribution to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent non-profit organization that promotes press freedom and that protects the rights of journalists worldwide. I made a mistake and I humbly ask for your forgiveness.”
The press groups that filed the ethics complaint against Gianforte said aggressive behavior by politicians and public officials toward reporters is becoming common.
“It is now clear that the steady stream of criticism of the press from the president and members of his administration — including the president’s notorious claim that they are the ‘enemy of the people’ — is emboldening attacks on reporters and the important work they do,” Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, said in a statement. “The Trump administration’s constant demonization of the media is having a dangerous trickle-down effect. It’s time for the president to be presidential, and defend our free press. If he refuses to speak out, President Trump is complicit in political violence.”
According to the press groups, the Gianforte assault was one of several acts of physical aggression against members of the news media in the last month.
On May 9 in West Virginia, a reporter was arrested for asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question, and on May 18 in Washington, D.C., security guards pinned a reporter for CQ Roll Call against a wall and ejected him under threat of force when he asked an FCC commissioner a question, according to PEN America.
“It is appalling that the hostile anti-press rhetoric being used at various levels of the U.S. government has now escalated to physical violence against a journalist who simply asked a question,” Margaux Ewen of Reporters Without Borders said. “This new level of violence is completely unacceptable in a country founded on democratic values like a free and independent press.”