Schweitzer under fire for remark

2008-09-11T00:00:00Z Schweitzer under fire for remarkBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Missoulian State Bureau

HELENA - In July, Gov. Brian Schweitzer suggested in a speech in Philadelphia that he tampered with the 2006 U.S. Senate election in Montana to help Democrat Jon Tester win.

On Wednesday, the governor said it was all a joke.

But Bozeman Republican activist Tamara Hall, who found the speech on the Internet, didn't think it was funny. She filed a complaint accusing Schweitzer of vote-tampering in the race in which Tester narrowly unseated Republican incumbent Conrad Burns.

Hall submitted a citizen's complaint against the Democratic governor this week with U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer and two state officials, Attorney General Mike McGrath and Secretary of State Brad Johnson.

Hall said Schweitzer boasted in the speech that "he designed a plan to threaten poll watchers on Indian reservations, personally applied pressure to the elections officer in Butte/Silver Bow while votes were being tabulated and manipulated the media for purposes of diminishing a call for a recount."

In an interview Wednesday, Schweitzer adamantly denied that he tampered with the 2006 election and apologized for his July 14 remarks to the American Association for Justice, formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

"I was just joking around and making it colorful," Schweitzer said of his speech. "I can see now it's offensive to some people, and I'm deeply sorry if I offended anyone."

The audience members' laughs show he was just joking, Schweitzer said.

Hall found a recording of the speech on the Internet. A transcript was posted on MT Pundit, a blog that identifies itself as "the new home of the Montana Right Wing."

In the July speech, Schweitzer said there was no room for error in the 2006 Senate race, so "we were prepared."

"And the advantage is, you know, when you've got a governor of a state on your side, whoa!" a transcript of the speech says. "You can turn some dials and we did."

Tester wound up defeating Burns by only about 3,500 votes out of some 406,500 cast in a three-way race. The Associated Press didn't declare Tester the winner until the morning after the election.

"I was talking about not having elections that end like we had in Florida," Schweitzer said Wednesday.

Others were not amused.

Montana Republican Chairman Erik Iverson, who ran Burns' campaign in the closing months, said Schweitzer's comments were not the least bit funny, but were "inappropriate and breathtakingly foolish."

"The governor brags all the time about what a great ambassador he is for Montana," Iverson said. "But in this instance, he comes off as a vulgar, arrogant blowhard."

Burns, contacted by telephone, said: "I cannot imagine a sitting governor bragging about breaking the law and using his influence to tip an election."

Tester's spokesman, Patrick Devlin, brushed aside Schweitzer's comments, saying: "This is just Brian being Brian, and there's nothing to it. Jon won the election fair and square."

The U.S. attorney's office received the complaint against Schweitzer and is reviewing Hall's request for an investigation, said spokeswoman Jessica Fehr.

The state attorney general's office can't act on citizens' complaints, spokeswoman Judy Beck said. Only complaints from local and state officials can trigger an investigation.

Secretary of State Brad Johnson said he would decide Thursday whether to request an investigation. His office has no legal authority in the areas of investigation and enforcement, he said.

"This should be a reminder to all of us in elected office that we need to weigh our words carefully," said Johnson, a Republican. "Even if, as he says, the words were said in jest, it feeds the cynicism out there."

Roy Brown, Schweitzer's Republican opponent, said he found Schweitzer's comments "both disturbing and disappointing," and said that Schweitzer considers election integrity "some sort of a punch line."

Here is what Schweitzer said in the speech about the three topics Hall cited in her complaint:

Allegations of trying to intimidate Republican poll watchers on Indian reservations. Schweitzer said Democrats wanted to make sure the residents of the state's seven Indian reservations voted because they are strong Democrats. He suggested that tribal police showed up at polling places and threatened to arrest Republican poll watchers on trumped-up charges.

Schweitzer said in his speech: "Then they said to them, 'People matching your description have been reported as having stolen a pickup about 30 miles (away). We only have one jail here and we don't have a phone here, and we've already got 11 people in the jail. Sometimes it takes two or three days to work these things out. So you either come with us in the backseat of our car or you can both get in the front seat of your car and we'll lead you off the reservation, and if we never see you again, you won't go to jail.' We didn't lose one single vote there."

On Wednesday, Schweitzer said, "It was just a colorful way of saying you can't have anyone intimidated." He said he knew of no intimidation of poll watchers on reservations.

Allegations of trying to influence vote-counting in Butte-Silver Bow.

Schweitzer said he found on election night that Butte-Silver Bow still had seven precincts to count. He said he called the election office and talked to an election clerk who was "as nervous as a pregnant nun." He said he told her not to call him, but he would call her back later after the votes were counted.

Clerk and Recorder Mary McMahon said she refused the call from Schweitzer because she was counting the votes with a bipartisan committee. She later talked to him at 3:30 a.m. when the tally was completed.

"The insinuation in this talk and in this blog that he had any influence in how the numbers were released is absolutely false," she said.

As a Catholic woman, McMahon said she was offended by Schweitzer's "pregnant nun" comment and demanded an apology on behalf of all women.

She said she is angry over Schweitzer's suggestions that Butte elections could be fixed.

"We've worked very hard in this office to turn that around," she said. "I resent the insinuation that he had any influence as to how and when I would release these numbers because he didn't."

Schweitzer apologized but said, "I'm pretty sure I'm not the first person to joke about Election Day in Butte."

Allegations of trying to intimidate the Associated Press into declaring Tester the winner.

Schweitzer said in the speech he called the AP bureau chief at 7:45 a.m. the day after the election to press him to declare Tester had won because the Democrat was 2,200 votes ahead with all votes counted. The AP bureau chief, Jim Clarke, said they weren't ready to make the call.

Here's what Schweitzer said in his speech he told the AP: "And I said to 'em, 'Look, let me tell you something. If you're not willing to do your job, I'll do it for you. I just called a press conference and you're invited at 10 o'clock this morning, and I'm going to stand next to the next United States senator, and I'm going to introduce him to the world because you're not doing your job.' "

Schweitzer said he called the press conference, and all the reporters showed up. Two minutes before it began, Schweitzer said AP called the race for Tester.

In response, Clarke said: "Yes, Gov. Schweitzer did call me on the morning after the election, and he did tell me he was going to declare Tester the victor. I told him we would call the race when we were satisfied the vote count was accurate. That's what I did, in consultation with our vote-counting operation and the decision desk in Washington. Any suggestion that the AP would be swayed by an elected official into prematurely calling a race is highly inaccurate."

Schweitzer said Wednesday he obviously didn't sway the AP and was not intimidating anyone because the votes were all counted by the morning after the election.

On the Web

To listen to Gov. Schweitzer's speech, go to BrianSchweitzerSpeechToTrialLawyersConvention7142008

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