Greg Gianforte’s campaign for governor should be flying an ethics caution flag.
Ethics issues emerge whenever a public official uses his or her personal wealth in a manner that seeks or appears to seek private gain linked to information or position derived from public office. It is that tension between private interest and public benefit that defines the phrase “conflict of interest.” And a conflict of interest, if not recognized and dealt with, raises ethics concerns.
Gianforte is rich- actually, really rich- and he’s using his personal wealth to purchase public office. At last count in 2020, he had loaned his campaign for governor $3.5 million, more money than most Montanans will see in a lifetime.
Clearly, Gianforte’s wealth creates the potential for instances of conflict of interest. In April, Tim Fox, running against Gianforte in the 2020 Republican primary, used information in a Congressional report to assert that Gianforte was improperly profiting from certain stock transactions. Fox’s campaign argued that Gianforte’s stock investments were made using insider information gained from his position as Montana’s U.S. Congressman.
According to Fox’s campaign, with this information Gianforte was able to identify and make investments in businesses likely to make money by supplying products and services responding to COVID-19.
That charge framed the classic ethical breach: a public official using his public position to advance his private interest. In Gianforte’s case the suspect investments were substantial, with Congressional reports for early 2020 showing Gianforte investments in stock transactions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in companies with COVID-19 business activity.
Gianforte brushed off the critique by Fox. This is not good.
Gianforte’s blind eye to ethical concerns exasperates other undesirable personal traits. We also know Gianforte is an impulsive and angry man; he assaulted a news reporter who asked inconvenient questions.
A governor of Montana will face many decisions that require calm and appropriate deference to public benefit over private gain. Protecting public access to land and water come to mind. In that regard, Gianforte has demonstrated, through personal litigation, a bias against the use of public access to hiking and fishing that so many Montanans cherish.
Most of us do not want an impulsive, ethically challenged governor with a bias for private interest over public benefit dealing with public access issues. We should stick with Mike Cooney, an upstanding man and trusted leader in these challenging and polarized times.
Jonathan Motl, former Montana Commissioner of Political Practices