HELENA — Montana Attorney General Tim Fox is using his recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to promote his campaign for governor, but state Department of Justice officials maintain the visit was for official business and won't seek reimbursement for the costs from the campaign.
The agency paid $2,776 for Fox and Highway Patrol Col. Tom Butler's flight, lodging and per-diem costs to El Paso, Texas, last week, Justice Department spokesman John Barnes said.
Fox told reporters in a conference call from El Paso last week that he wanted to see firsthand, as the state's top law-enforcement officer, whether there is indeed a border crisis that is contributing methamphetamine trafficking in Montana. When he returned, campaign officials posted on "Fox for Governor" social media websites a photo of Fox with U.S. Border Patrol agents at the border and a video of him talking about what he saw.
"So much of the methamphetamine that comes to Montana, has ruined people's lives, broken up families, put people in jail, created overdoses, comes from the Mexican border," Fox said in the video.
National attention and debate has focused on the border as the number of migrants trying to cross has increased this year, bringing concerns of a mounting humanitarian crisis and about the border's security. It has emerged as an unlikely issue early on in the 2020 Montana governor's race to the north, with Fox saying much of the meth in Montana now comes from Mexico after a crackdown forced most large-scale in-state drug operations to shut down.
One of Fox's primary opponents, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, also highlighted southern border issues as a contributing factor to Montana's drug trafficking problems in his last campaign. Gianforte made his own border trip back in January.
Fox's trip highlights what can be a gray area when an elected official piggybacks off state business to further an election campaign. In 2017, Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan said Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock's reelection campaign violated state law by not reporting in a timely manner those instances when the governor used the state plane for a combination of work and campaigning.
Mangan said Wednesday that he did not know the details of Fox's trip to the border and his office has not received any complaints about it. Generally, he said, elected officials can and often do bring up their work experiences in campaigns as proof that they're committed to the state.
But they can't use state resources to do so for their campaigns, Mangan said.
"Most are really aware of what that line is, and hopefully they're not crossing it," Mangan said.
Barnes said the state won't try to split the cost of the trip with the campaign, noting that Fox has worked extensively on issues related to illegal drugs, human trafficking and immigration as attorney general.
"To our knowledge, no state agency has ever asked a campaign for reimbursement when a campaign mentions the accomplishments and work of an officeholder," Barnes said.
Fox campaign spokesman Jack Cutter said no state time, personnel or resources were used to develop any of the material used by the campaign about the border trip.
"Just as Tim's office said, he went there because he cares about what's happening at the border, including the effect it has on Montana," Cutter said. "And he wants to find solutions to address it, both as AG and when he's governor."
Bullock, who is running for president, is in his final term as Montana governor. Fox, Gianforte and state Sen. Al Olszewski lead a five-person race for the GOP nomination for the open seat, while state House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner and former legislator Reilly Neill are seeking the Democratic nomination.