A little known fact was brought to my attention today, one that will make it nearly impossible for Greg Gianforte to become governor. In 2009, Greg and Susan Gianforte sued the Montana department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, seeking to get rid of a fishing access point that residents of Bozeman had used for almost 40 years to go fishing on the East Gallatin River.
The easement was little more than a dirt route that led from a county road to the bank of the river. This access route had been used regularly enough since the 1970s so that in 1993 the public acquired a legal right to use the pathway. The spur led not only to the river but to an entire riparian area of 75 public acres, protected by FWP for the enjoyment and general use of all citizens. But the easement also ran over the far end of the Gianfortes’s property, and so after purchasing several lots totaling over 105 acres along the river just outside of town, and with a nice house very close to the water, the Gianfortes decided they no longer wanted to have Montanans crossing their property on the way to go fishing on public land. They viewed it as a trespass. And so like many wealthy landowners in Montana in the last several decades, they went to court to block the access. Contrast this behavior with Steve Bullock, who has fought to protect access to streams, and precisely these types of access points, as both attorney general and governor.
The suit was filed (sneakily) by a company called “East Gallatin LLC,” whose registered agent is listed as Susan Gianforte and whose address is listed as the family’s home. And if this meal is not tasty enough for you, there’s dessert: Art Wittich was the attorney that the Gianfortes hired to bring the lawsuit. Wittich now has an attorney of his own, defending him from being evicted from office. Why someone with $400 million would hire Art Wittich to represent him when he could get anyone in the world is an interesting question.
Like other things from Greg Gianforte’s past, this episode will do him no favors in the gubernatorial race. In fact, I believe this is a story that no Montana candidate, especially a first-timer who is just now being introduced to voters, can survive. It plays directly into the narrative that Gianforte’s campaign doesn’t want to unfold: that Gianforte is a wealthy person from elsewhere, who moved to Montana to build a trophy home and fence off public land. And it’s made even worse by the fact that he tried to hide behind a corporate veil when he filed the suit, to shield his identity and had his wife file as agent. (Recall when Rehberg filed a lawsuit against the firefighters and tried to blame his wife for filing the lawsuit, and later dropped the suit after it became a major campaign issue.) Gianforte will now be hobbled by this foolish greediness, which calls into question his emphatic declarations that the only thing he’s ever desired as a Bozeman resident been to help the citizens of his community.