Recent events in the Montana Secretary of State's Office seem suspicious, even by Corey Stapleton's standards.
You may remember that Stapleton roiled elections officials across the state when he alleged voter fraud in the 2017 special U.S. House election only to be proven absolutely false. When he tried to double down on those statements, elections officials in the state, some of whom were Republican, pushed back again. And so the rhetoric about voter fraud quieted, with the only true case of fraud being traced back to Stapleton's vocabulary.
Then, you may also recall a steady exodus of long-tenured folks at the office who seemed to know what they were doing and how to ensure Montana's elections and business ran smoothly.
In the past month, Stapleton's office had to pony up more than quarter-million dollars to pay for a printing error in a voters' guide the office published. The error-riddled publication was an embarrassment and it seemed rushed — as if office seemed shocked there was an election. Heck, even the submarine on the cover, which was meant to depict the U.S. Navy's submarine, the Montana, wasn't correct. You'd think a former Navy officer would have at least gotten the ship right.
But righting the ship doesn't seem to be Stapleton's strength. Last week, as the Associated Press was looking into the story of the flawed publication, it discovered that the election guide correction wasn't published by the lowest bidder, meaning the taxpayers paid more to get the correction "addendum." The lowest bidder was a firm in Phoenix, but Stapleton's office decided against it because it would have likely delayed the correction by a day or two.
Instead, Stapleton's office chose a printing company in Billings, owned by political operative and former Montana GOP head Jake Eaton. When the Associated Press did more digging, it turned out that Stapleton had also contracted with Eaton's wife, a GOP attorney, Emily Jones, who unsuccessfully defended Stapelton's office in a lawsuit over a ballot issue.
Since then, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox revealed that his office had offered to represent the Secretary of State's Office, which would have been typical. But Stapleton decided to spend more taxpayer money by hiring a lawyer with deep party connections instead of using the office of Fox who is, ahem, a Republican, too. Stapleton said he used Jones because he believed the case was more of a political issue than a legal issue.
Even though secretary of state is a partisan office, what goes on in the office and on the ballot shouldn't be. Stapleton has intentionally chosen to make who gets on the ballot political. He saddled taxpayers with a $60,000 bill for outside legal help when surely there was more expertise in the state's attorney general's office.
That Stapleton, who has had questions raised about his spending previously, wasted money on printing and outside counsel should seriously undercut any Republican bona fides of him being a fiscal conservative.
After the last election, there was a call to ensure that our elections have the utmost integrity. Right now, we believe there is sufficient concern that Stapleton is not running the office in a way that ensures that type of voter or citizen confidence.
The Legislature's State Administration and Veterans Affairs Interim Committee has oversight of the Secretary of State Office, and the committee is meeting on the afternoon of Nov. 13 in Helena. The agenda includes a presentation from Stapleton's election chief on federal grants, but Stapleton himself should be on the agenda. We call on the committee leadership: Chair Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, and Vice Chair Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, to request that Stapleton attend the meeting to answer questions about the $265,000 voter pamphlet error and the $60,000 expense for outside counsel. During the 2019 Legislature, the general government subcommittee on appropriations should take a close look at the SOS budget and hold Stapleton accountable for avoidable expenditures.
Stapleton continues to make questionable decisions. It's time to check those and make sure taxpayers don't pay any more for his errors.