As if the term "conflict of interest" hasn't been used enough in the political world recently, a special election in Montana is now the subject of not only a police-investigated assault allegation, but a potential conflict of interest scandal. Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte is being investigated by local police for allegedly body-slamming a reporter to the ground on Wednesday evening, but the fact that Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin donated to Gianforte's campaign is raising more than a few eyebrows. Gianforte's spokesperson accused the reporter of being the aggressor in the situation. Furthermore, Gootkin admitted to have contributed to Gianforte's campaign but ensured, "this contribution has nothing to do with our investigation, which is now complete."
Federal Elections Commission documentation shows that Gootkin, whose department is leading the assault investigation, donated $250 to Gianforte's campaign in March 2017. At a press conference on Wednesday evening, Gootkin stated that he briefly interviewed Gianforte after the alleged incident, which was caught on audio tape, but that he did not detain him. He confirmed, however, that the department plans to thoroughly interview witnesses and both parties involved to get both sides of the story. Gootkin did not mention any personal ties to Gianforte, or any plans to recuse himself from the investigation.
"You can run into a million different type of situations where there’s two sides to every story and if someone may have pushed someone or something like that, that is why law enforcement has to have as much evidence as possible before deciding to pull the county attorney in and request charges," Gootkin said at a press conference.
Here is Gianforte's response to the allegations via his spokesperson:
Gianforte is being accused by Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs of allegedly tackling him to the ground after asking a question about the American Health Care Act, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated will cost 23 million Americans their health insurance over the next decade if enacted. According to Jacobs, the altercation with Gianforte supposedly left him on the ground, and also allegedly broke his glasses. The congressional candidate denies the allegations.
There is no law that prohibits police officers from donating to political campaigns, and given that investigating a congressional candidate for assault on the eve of an election is a highly unlikely scenario, it's likely that Gianforte never imagined his donation would pose a conflict of interest.
There is no evidence that Gootkin's support of Gianforte in the election has influenced his actions in his handling of the situation thus far, or that it will affect the outcome of the investigation in any way. Still, it is something to be aware of as the investigation continues.