Greg Gianforte is not responding to the Gallatin County Sheriff’s request for an interview in the investigation that led to him being charged with misdemeanor assault.
According to a Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian, Gianforte "body slammed" him as Jacobs attempted to interview him Wednesday night.
Local and national media filled a conference room Thursday afternoon in the Gallatin County Detention Center, in Bozeman, when Brian Gootkin, the Gallatin County Sheriff, said Gianforte had directed all further communication to his attorney.
“Every citizen is garnered their right to an attorney, and cannot be compelled to provide a statement. The detectives determined probable cause existed to issue a citation Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault,” Gootkin said.
A Fox news story filed by one of the witnesses says Gianforte grabbed the reporter by the neck with both hands, throwing him to the ground.
A statement from the Gianforte campaign contradicted that account, saying the reporter initiated physical contact, pushing them both to the ground.
Sheriff Gootkin described Gianforte’s charge like this:
“A person commits the offense of assault if the person purposely or knowingly causes bodily harm to another.”
Gootkin says a felony assault charge was not warranted because the injuries to the victim in this case were not serious, life threatening or deadly.
Gianforte was not detained by sheriff’s deputies when they arrived on scene at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters shortly after the incident.
Sheriff Gootkin says Gianforte was cooperative with law enforcement and gave an initial statement at the scene, before being allowed to leave.
At Thursday’s press conference Associated Press Reporter Bobby Calvan repeatedly questioned Gootkin about why Gianforte wasn’t detained if he was the suspect in the investigation.
“What happened was the deputies got busy with the witnesses and the victim and they had already had an initial, you know, spoke with Mr. Gianforte initialy. When they got busy and came back he was gone," Gootkin said.
"And your deputies did not ascertain that it was Mr. Gianforte who might have been a part of the scuffle," Calvan asked.
"No, our deputies knew that he was the suspect," Gootkin replied.
"Okay, so why then did he leave, or was allowed to leave," Calvan asked.
"Because he wasn’t in custody," Gootkin said.
"But if you wanted to talk with him, why wasn’t he detained there or told to stay until a more definitive investigation was done to determine if you wanted to talk with him a little bit more," Calvan pressed.
"I’ve already answered that," the sheriff said.
"I’m sorry, what was the answer to it," Calvan asked.
"The answer was, because the deputes were busy interviewing the witnesses and the victim," Gootkin said.
Gootkin also apologized for not telling reporters Wednesday night that he contributed $250 to Gianforte in March. Gootkin disagreed with assertions that the contribution constitutes a conflict of interest, and that another agency should have taken over the case. The sheriff says he has had personal interactions with Greg Gianforte, but the contribution to his campaign has nothing to do with the investigation, which is now complete.
“The citizens of Gallatin county elected me to a job. And this incident occurred in our county and this was our responsibility to investigate,” Gootkin said.
Gianforte now must appear in Gallatin County Justice Court between now and June 7. A person convicted of assault can receive a fine of $500 and be put in jail for not more than 6 months.
National Republican figures, including Montana. Senator Steve Daines and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan are calling for Gianforte to apologize.
Rob Quist, the Democratic candidate for the House seat hasn't commented on the incident.
In a press release, Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks said, "Tonight we saw how Greg Gianforte reacts to situations out of his control. It has been a long time since Greg has faced a problem that his money or lawyers couldn’t solve. That has to be incredibly frustrating for someone that is not used to what most of us consider the daily grind.”
The news of Gianforte’s scuffle with a national political reporter, who was asking the candidate a question about healthcare policy, broke on the eve of election day in the contest to fill Montana’s single seat in the U.S. House. Gianforte is on the ballot with Democrat Rob Quist and Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks. Polling stations close at 8:00 tonight.