BILLINGS, Mont. — A Montana congressman initially misled investigators about his assault on a reporter and claimed that the “liberal media” was “trying to make a story” out of it, documents released Friday show.
Rep. Greg Gianforte told an officer in the aftermath of the attack that Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs had grabbed him by the wrist and pulled both of them to the floor, according to notes from a Gallatin County sheriff’s deputy who interviewed the politician on the night of the attack.
Multiple witnesses contradicted that account, and Gianforte later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. The attack occurred the day before his victory in a May 24 special election, by which time many voters already had cast ballots by mail.
More than 100 pages of documents, photos and audio from the investigation in the case were released under a court order Friday following requests from The Associated Press and other news organizations.
The documents include interviews with several reporters for Fox News who were in the room with the congressman and Jacobs. They said Gianforte became enraged over what he perceived as biased coverage before body slamming Jacobs, reporter, throwing him to the ground and punching him.
A Gianforte campaign staffer also told investigators that he saw Gianforte “striking the reporter with closed fists.”
Another campaign worker said Gianforte and others on the campaign earlier in the day had been complaining about “duplicitous” campaign coverage by the Guardian and another publication, Buzzfeed.
In his interview with Sgt. Scott Secor, Gianforte said Jacobs had interrupted as the Fox crew set up for an interview and “started interrogating in a very intensive way.”
“I probably shouldn’t do it but I reached out for his phone…he grabbed my wrist, he spun and we ended up on the floor…so he pulled me down on top of him,” Secor quoted Gianforte as saying.
Gianforte’s campaign released a similar statement just after the attack that cast Jacob’s as the instigator.
Gianforte spokesman Travis Hall did not have an immediate comment on the documents released Friday.
Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said he was aware of Gianforte’s misleading comments to investigators but did not pursue any charges because he was focused on the assault allegation.
“When the police are investigating a case, suspects of crimes will say misleading things and apparently that’s exactly what happened here on the part of both Mr. Gianforte and his campaign,” said Lambert.
“It is not a crime per se to lie to the cops,” the county attorney added. “The main thing here is he was charged with assaulting Ben Jacobs and pled guilty to that.”
Lambert is a Republican.
After pleading guilty in June, Gianforte paid a $385 fine, completed 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management counseling. He also donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The assault happened too late in the campaign to affect the outcome of the election to replace Ryan Zinke, who had been tapped by President Donald Trump as Interior Secretary.
Gianforte is up for re-election for the seat next year and has filed to run. Six Democrats so far have lined up hoping to challenge him.
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