Don’t worry about Gianforte abroad, start worrying about when he’s in Montana

June 23, 2022 4:22 am

Gov. Greg Gianforte tours Bainville Meats to talk about value-added enhancements in agriculture (Photo courtesy of Office the Montana Governor).

So Gov. Greg Gianforte said arrivederci to Montana on what turned out to be a poorly timed trip to Italy.

Some Montanans took it personally that he would deign to leave the state. Whether it was the pull of rich red Tuscan wines, reconnecting with the Gianforte roots (ostensibly Italian) or just none of our gosh-darned business, Montanans were offended that the governor took some personal time to head to Europe.

As much as this may rankle others, try as I might, I cannot find fault with the governor heading to Italy, regardless of the reason. Quite frankly, I would be the first to criticize an employer who granted zero vacation time or personal time, and what Gianforte does with his personal or vacation time is up to him. Personally, I am just happy it doesn’t involve clubbing some animal being used for scientific research.

And as clever as Gianforte is, he cannot be blamed for not being omniscient enough to foresee catastrophic flooding in a state that has been plagued by severe drought and equally historic forest fires.

My problem isn’t where Gianforte is when he hops an international flight. Instead, I am more concerned about what he is doing while he’s in Montana. Quite frankly, it’s hard to tell the difference and that’s precisely the problem.

For months, Montana’s media have fought for more transparency about what the governor and many departments are doing. His daily schedule and whereabouts still remain opaque. In an example of throwing the media an already sunbleached bone, the governor’s office agreed to release a public schedule to the media so that if we happened to cover an event, we could at least catch a glimpse of governor. Other than that, most of Gianforte’s appearances are carefully scripted with supporters who dutifully smile and support him, not to mention being impressed by his jeans, boots and belt buckles, which cover his New Jersey identity.

Short of congratulating himself for touring 56 counties of which he is governor, there’s not a lot of interaction with Gianforte, and despite repeated requests by the media for more transparency and access, many of the governor’s daily schedules say that there are no public event scheduled or that he’s meeting with members of his cabinet or staff. In other words, Gianforte’s work schedule includes work. The end.

Gianforte in Italy didn’t feel much different than Gianforte in Helena or Bozeman or wherever he happens to be.

Yet, it’s hard for me to get too riled up about Gianforte being out of the country during what can only be called a freak weather incident, even by Montana’s wily weather standards.  I wonder if Gov. Gianforte feels a little stung by the criticism, too. I mean: He’s not been out and about, taking questions and open to the public for years, so why does it matter now?

If Montana is serious about having a governor who is transparent and open, then that demand should have been made a long time ago. His public calendar, or at least the version released to press, is minimal. For example, when Gianforte began his Tuscan travels, there was no notification that Gianforte was out of the country, and Juras, nominally, was in charge.

Despite the practices of his predecessors, Gianforte holds little to no press availability. Repeated requests for a weekly press briefing, something more common during other governors’ tenures, has been ignored. And since there has been no public outrage, Gianforte can continue to ignore those requests.

Meanwhile, public information requests pile up, and those take both money and time to fight. So far, we’ve tracked several lawsuits in which members of the public have requested “bill tracking forms” or even emails, only to have those requests tied up in litigation. Let’s face it: That’s a deliberate strategy employed by the governor’s office to either outspend political rivals in attorney’s fees, or wait until the information is stale.

And when it comes to transparency, requests for information by reporters from the Daily Montanan and other media outlets often go ignored because we’re either seen as adversaries rather than people just doing part of the job of democracy, which is holding public officials to account, and asking hard, sometimes pointed questions.

It’s interesting: In the dozens of stories that we’ve published in which the governor’s office or other state officials have refused to comment or cough up information, most have accepted taking “no comment” as an answer. Yet, when Gianforte leaves the country during a freak disaster, everyone cannot get enough information about the governor’s whereabouts.

Ironically, it was a guy from Italy, Julius Caesar, who said: It is what men cannot see that disturbs their minds more than that which they can see in front of them.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.