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Gianforte was in Italy during week of flooding, his office says

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Greg Gianforte

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte talks during a Mansfield Dialogue at the University of Montana on April 12.

Gov. Greg Gianforte was in Italy during the past four days of historic flooding in southern Montana, his office said Friday morning, after refusing to release his whereabouts since his absence from the state was first reported Tuesday.

"With the governor back in the state and security concerns no longer an issue, we are providing information as promised," spokesperson Brooke Stroyke wrote in an email Friday. "The governor departed early Saturday morning to Italy with his wife for a long-planned personal, private trip."

It's unclear what security issues prevented the disclosure of his location, and Travis Hall, the governor's senior advisor and director of strategic communications, declined to elaborate on Friday.

Record rainfall and above-average snowpack generated widespread flooding in portions of the state beginning Sunday. Homes have flooded as rivers and creeks jumped their banks, and thousands of people were temporarily stranded by high waters and washed-out roads around the Yellowstone National Park gateway community of Gardiner earlier this week. Others have been forced to seek help at temporary shelters after being displaced from their homes.

President Joe Biden on Thursday issued a disaster declaration for the state of Montana, making federal funding available in response to damage caused by widespread flooding in Carbon, Park and Stillwater counties.

The governor's office did not notify the public that the governor was not in the country and the first indication he was gone was when an executive order issued Tuesday declaring a statewide disaster bore Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras' signature as "acting governor."

Since his absence was first reported by the Montana State News Bureau on Tuesday, Gianforte has weathered sharp criticism from Democrats and other critics for appearing unwilling to acknowledge that he was out of the state, and for refusing to say where he was. In a press release Wednesday, Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sheila Hogan said that "Gianforte purposefully kept Montanans in the dark about where he was, and who was actually in charge."

Gianforte on Monday sent an email to Juras giving her the authority to act as governor "in response to the flooding in Montana." He also verbally authorized the disaster declaration Monday and then asked Juras to formally issue it on his behalf Tuesday, according to his office.

On Wednesday, his office stated that Gianforte was "returning early and as quickly as possible" from his trip. He was scheduled to arrive Thursday night, but Hall said his flight was delayed and he landed back in Montana Friday morning.

Gianforte was joined by Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale, in Gardiner. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was scheduled to tour flooding-related damage in Billings, Livingston and Red Lodge.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Tester said that Gianforte's absence "speaks for itself."

"It just does," Tester told the Associated Press as he toured damage in Red Lodge on Friday. "When you're in public service, there are things that take precedent, and this is pretty important."

The Associated Press also reported Scott Miller, a commissioner in Carbon County, where flooding heavily damaged the town of Red Lodge and other areas, said Friday that he had been able to contact the governor by phone when he needed to and that the state did not neglect any duties.

"The fact that the governor has been on vacation — there's been no hiccups," Miller told the AP. "That's why you have people in your cabinet."

In Red Lodge, Tester hesitated to criticize the governor, acknowledging he was in Washington this week working on a bill for veterans.

"Some could say, 'Jon, why didn't you come back Tuesday or Wednesday?'" Tester told the AP. "These are hard situations. I don't know what his circumstances were. ... I've got a decent working relationship with the governor and want to continue that."

The state's request for federal assistance on Wednesday pegged damage to transportation infrastructure at $29 million and noted the risk to more than $250 million in annual economic impacts from tourism in the region.

The top two Democrats in the Legislature on Friday sent a letter to Gianforte, urging him to use funding released to the state under the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to assist communities impacted by the flooding. Money overseen by the advisory commission that oversees ARPA funds used for offsetting economic impacts of the pandemic could be directed toward those communities, Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour of East Helena and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott of Helena said in the letter.

"This funding is available now and can be put to quick use to help small businesses and displaced workers in the Yellowstone gateway areas weather the coming weeks and months," they wrote.

Beyond the immediate flood impacts, the towns of Red Lodge, Gardiner and other communities that rely on tourism from the park face uncertain months ahead. Roads connecting both of the gateway communities to Yellowstone were partially destroyed by flooding, and officials say they will need extensive repairs or rerouting before they open again.

The Democratic leadership is asking that $93 million be directed to "impacted small businesses and workers in the Yellowstone gateway communities." House Democrats spokesperson Hannah VanHoose said that money came from the most recent batch of ARPA money, and could be eligible to offset economic impacts to businesses that had been negatively affected by the pandemic — including those hurt by a drop in summer tourism during 2020.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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