A national Republican committee working to keep the party's majority in the U.S. Senate is doubling down on a television advertisement the company it references says is false and defamatory and has threatened to sue local stations over running.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee started airing an ad last week that references $14 million in state grants to a Butte firm, Pioneer Technical Services. Pioneer is not named in the ad, but is referenced through its association with Gov. Steve Bullock's brother, Bill. NRSC released another ad on the same topic Friday.
Bill Bullock helped found Pioneer in 1991 and was chief executive officer before resigning in 2004, selling his interest to employees by 2009. Gov. Steve Bullock was first elected governor in 2012 and took office in 2013.
Bill Bullock became Pioneer's chairman of the board in 2017 and since 2018 has received a $1,500 stipend quarterly to cover time and expenses for participating in board meetings.
"Apart from that modest stipend, Bill Bullock receives no income or distributions from Pioneer of any kind whatsoever," a letter from Pioneer's attorney Karl Englund dated July 27 reads. The letter demands stations stop running the ad or "you will be exposing your station to a potential lawsuit for defamation."
That's the second letter from Pioneer to television stations around Montana asking them to take down the ad or face the threat of a defamation lawsuit. Pioneer's chief executive officer, Brad Archibald, said Friday he had had not heard from any stations that they would take down the ad.
Only one station contacted by Lee Newspapers responded to an inquiry and said they had consulted their lawyers and would not be taking down the ad.
It's not clear yet what are the next steps Pioneer will take.
In the first letter to TV stations, Archibald said he was "appalled to see the advertisement."
"To imply any sort of nepotism at play is not only offensive but downright false," Archibald wrote.
NRSC said it stands by the ad's claims, citing Bill Bullock's role as chairman of the board.
“Public state filings show Gov. Steve Bullock’s brother to be the chairman of the board of a corporation that has received more than $14 million in taxpayer funds during this Democrat administration," said NRSC spokesman Nathan Brand. "Montanans deserve answers from Steve Bullock about how his brother’s company secured such lucrative state contracts, and why this conflict of interest was not disclosed to Montana taxpayers."
NRSC has spent $2.3 million against Bullock this election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Rebecca Harbage, the public policy director at the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the governor was not involved in any grants awarded by that agency.
The state has a procurement bureau at the Department of Administration, but the DEQ has the authority to do its own competitive bid and contracting process.
There's a procurement officer who works at DEQ who executes the agency's contract and the governor is not in any way involved, Harbage said.
Amber Conger, communications director at the Department of Administration, said in an email Friday the "governor has no involvement in the procurement or contracting process for the state of Montana."
That authority is granted under statute to the state Department of Administration.
Bullock's Senate campaign also said the ad was false.
"The claims in this ad are just not supported by the facts. First off, Gov. Bullock's brother resigned from Pioneer Technical Services before the governor was elected to public office, and his brother sold his shares in 2009 — four years before Bullock became governor," said press secretary Sean Manning. "Second, it is absolutely false that the governor 'steered' contracts to this Montana business — all contracts are issued in compliance with state procurement laws. …"
The same issue was the subject of an ad in 2012, which was replaced with a substitute ad from the Republican Governors Association. The ad made the same claim about Pioneer, and was removed after a letter again from Englund, this time representing Bullock's first governor campaign.
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