Reporter Warns Rep. Gianforte Not to Lie About 2017 Attack
By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte has intentionally misled voters and the media about his attack on a reporter last year as the Montana Republican campaigns for re-election, the reporter's attorney said in a letter Thursday.
Ben Jacobs' attorney, Geoffrey Genth, sent a cease-and-desist letter threatening to cancel Jacob's agreement not to sue Gianforte if the congressman doesn't stop. Genth told William Mercer, Gianforte's attorney, to preserve all documents about the attack in case they are needed as evidence.
"Please advise your client that he and his spokespersons need to stop — immediately and forever — telling lies about the assault, about their own prior lies, about your client's 'settlement agreement' with Ben, or about any other aspect of this matter," Genth wrote.
Gianforte spokesman Travis Hall declined to comment on the letter. "Greg regrets what happened and has taken full responsibility for it," Hall said in a statement.
Genth declined to comment, saying the letter speaks for itself.
The attack against Jacobs has re-emerged as a campaign issue for Gianforte, who is defending his seat against Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams. Williams recently released an ad with audio of the scuffle from Jacobs' recorder, with the ad saying, "This is not who we are."
President Donald Trump also praised Gianforte for the attack during a rally last week in Missoula. "Any guy that can do a body slam — he's my kind of guy," the president said.
Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault after throwing Jacobs to the ground when the reporter tried to ask him a question the day before the special congressional election Gianforte won in 2017 to complete the term of Ryan Zinke, who was named Interior Department secretary.
Jacobs agreed not to sue after Gianforte donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists and wrote a letter acknowledging that Jacobs didn't initiate the attack. Gianforte initially told police that Jacobs attacked him first, and his campaign initially released a statement repeating that Jacobs was the aggressor.
Gianforte told the editorial board of the Missoulian newspaper that he recounted to police what he remembered about the assault — that Jacobs attacked him first — and that he was bound by the settlement agreement not to talk about the assault, the newspaper reported earlier this week.
Those comments led to Genth's letter. Gianforte's remarks aim to conceal his responsibility for the attack and his dishonesty about it, Genth wrote. There also is no confidentiality provision in the agreement and nothing keeping Gianforte from answering questions about the attack and his statement to police, the lawyer added.
"By way of his new falsehood about the 'settlement agreement,' Rep. Gianforte intended, during the last weeks before a contested election, to mislead the press and the electorate about his ability to respond to questions relevant to his candidacy," Genth wrote.
The renewed attention on Gianforte's attack comes with absentee voting underway in Montana. A Democrat hasn't held the House seat since 1997 in Montana, a conservative state that otherwise has a history of voting Democrats into statewide office — including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock.
Carroll College political science professor Jeremy Johnson said the president didn't do Gianforte any favors by bringing it up last week. The reminder could influence independent and swing voters in the race.
"It's now become another argument that Williams can use to make her case," Johnson said.
Williams said Thursday that Montana voters should be having conversations about health care, Social Security and rural issues — but instead find themselves talking about an assault by a congressman.
"Montanans can do so much better," Williams said. "Frankly, this is not behavior becoming of a U.S. representative."