Plagiarism is a big deal. It is an act of deception that has serious consequences - not the least of these being a loss of trust.

U.S. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., says he did not intentionally plagiarize the research paper he submitted to Army War College in 2007. The paper, which is a requirement for a master’s degree, was thoroughly analyzed by the New York Times and posted online as well for readers to draw their own conclusions.

The Times’s analysis - and conclusion - pointed out that Walsh’s paper did not just incorrectly attribute a few statements. It lifted entire passages of works from other sources without citing them.

Now the War College is conducting its own investigation. If it, too, finds that Walsh copied others’ work, the punishment could possibly include the loss of his degree.

In a phone meeting with the Missoulian’s editorial board last Thursday, Walsh said that he is prepared to accept whatever consequences the War College decides is suitable.

It would have done a great deal to restore our confidence in Walsh if he had also offered a close accounting of how his “mistake” occurred, along with his thoughts on what would be the right thing to do to atone for it. Simply leaving it up to the War College seems like a missed opportunity to take responsibility - and ownership.

Because ultimately, it won’t matter if Walsh plagiarized by mistake because he was grappling with grief over a fellow veteran’s suicide. It won’t matter that he has served in the Montana National Guard for more than three decades, or that he spent nearly a year in Iraq fighting on behalf of his country.

The bottom line is, Montanans simply cannot - and won’t - trust a senator who portrayed the words and ideas of others as his own for his own personal gain.

And since Montanans deserve a true choice between candidates this November, Walsh should bow out of the Senate race immediately. With each passing day that Walsh remains in the race, Montana Democrats lose time to replace him with a more viable candidate.

Walsh was appointed to the Senate by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock earlier this year, after our previous senator, Max Baucus, was appointed ambassador to China. Walsh has had only a scant few months in which to prove his mettle in the Senate, but instead, the record and reputation on which he is basing his campaign has repeatedly been called into question.

A 2010 U.S. Army inspector general report led to an official reprimand for using his leadership position with the Montana National Guard to encourage other officers to join the National Guard Association, a private entity that lobbies for better equipment and support programs for soldiers. At the time, Walsh was seeking an unpaid, volunteer but high-profile position as vice chairman of the association. The reprimand meant he could not be promoted to brigadier general.

More recently, a former Montana National Guard employee who filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Complaint against the Montana Guard accused Walsh of allowing sex discrimination to occur under his watch.

What makes the plagiarism allegations different from other criticisms is that there is simply no good explanation nor excuse for it. Walsh can reason that he encouraged soldiers to join a good organization that works on their behalf, and he can dispute Major Cindy Neely’s account of her time with the Guard - but there is no good argument for cheating on a research paper in War College.

What would be the honorable thing to do now?

Walsh could resign his Senate seat immediately. Bullock could then appoint a temporary replacement who isn’t running for election, as many Montanans had hoped he would do earlier this year, before he went with Walsh. That replacement could see that the legislation Walsh supported received continued support.

But if Walsh doesn’t do that, at a minimum, he should drop out of the Senate race. He has until Aug. 11 to do so and get his name removed from the ballot, which would allow the Montana Democratic Party to name a replacement candidate by Aug. 20 - just in time to make sure that candidate’s name appears on the ballot.

Indeed, that might be the party’s best hope of getting a Democrat elected, because as it is, Walsh stands very little chance of winning in November.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen

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