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Missoula CEO Says Gianforte Assault Hurts Montana Tech Industry

Michael FitzGerald, CEO of Submittable, in his office. June 2015.
Cherie Newman

The CEO of one of Missoula’s most successful tech companies was sitting around the dinner table with his kids when he saw video clips on YouTube of President Donald Trump's rally at the Missoula airport on October 18. The president praised Congressman Greg Gianforte for assaulting a journalist last year.

“Any guy that can do a body-slam, he’s my kind of ... he’s my guy.”

The crowd cheered. Five days later, the CEO Michael FitzGerald published an open letter to the Montana High Tech Alliance on the Missoula Current website saying he’s concerned about violence and partisanship being associated with Montana’s fast-growing high-tech sector.

“For all Greg, all the things that he does well, assaulting another human being is not something palatable. And not something I can associate our brand with or I recommend any company ever associate their brand with,” FitzGerald says. 

FitzGerald’s company Submittable, provides an online platform used for promoting, accepting, and reviewing content and applications.

Greg Gianforte co-founded the Montana High Tech Business Alliance in 2014, but resigned from its board in 2017 when he won Montana’s seat in the U.S. House.

According to the Alliance's website, it supports an industry growing up to nine-times faster than the Montana economy as a whole.

FitzGerald says he’s always seen the group as partisan, and it was created shortly before Gianforte ran for governor, so he never joined.

The Alliance declined an interview request for this story and pointed Montana Public Radio to an online statement on FitzGerald’s letter that says it contained inaccuracies. It says the alliance is a nonpartisan organization that does not endorse a political position, party or candidate. Read the full response from Montana High Tech Business Alliance.

FitzGerald says Gianforte’s assault on a journalist changed the way some people see Montana’s culture, or the state’s brand. He says it’s come up in conversations with job candidates at his company.

“It’s easy for us to forget about it because we live here, but from the outside we look like thugs," FitzGerald says. "It doesn’t have anything to do with Republican or Democrat. It's just people who don’t want convicted criminals to represent them. If we can’t recruit the smartest people in the world, they’ll go somewhere else that can.”

Gianforte has been pivotal in the development of Montana’s high-tech industry. He started a software company in Bozeman called RightNow Technologies that sold for over a billion dollars in 2011.

Neither Gianforte’s congressional office nor his campaign for re-election responded to Montana Public Radio’s request for an interview.

Mr. Gianforte also declined Montana Public Radio’s interview request on the night of President Trump's rally in Missoula to talk about what the president said about the assault. Mr. Gianforte has, on many occasions, said he regrets it.

Gianforte’s campaign emailed a statement, following the president’s remarks in Missoula, attributed to an unnamed spokesman, saying, in part, Gianforte “is not perfect, he’s taken personal responsibility, this has been widely covered.”

Greg Gianforte looks back at reporter Ben Jacobs in Gallatin County Justice Court, June 12, 2017, after Gianforte pleaded guilty to assaulting Jacobs.
Credit Louise Johns
Greg Gianforte looks back at reporter Ben Jacobs in Gallatin County Justice Court, June 12, 2017, after Gianforte pleaded guilty to assaulting Jacobs.

FitzGerald’s public letter to Montana High Tech Business Alliance says the group needs to take a step back from its association with Gianforte, because of the violence now associated with him.

“Just say something like, anybody convicted of a criminal act can no longer be on a panel or may be representative of us.”

Independent of the Alliance, four out six members of the group’s board of directors have financially contributed to either Gianforte’s run for governor in 2016 or his campaigns for Congress.

The Alliance's Executive Director, independent of the group, has also financially contributed to Gianforte's campaign effort for governor.

A statement posted post to its website in response to FitzGerald's letter says it has worked with all Montana elected leaders, Democrats and Republicans, and that it believes, “that good people can disagree about politics, candidates, and important issues, but can still work together as Montanans to support economic growth and high-paying jobs in our state.”

FitzGerald’s criticism of what he sees as an association of violence with Montana’s tech industry came roughly two weeks before the midterm election. FitzGerald says he wasn't thinking about the election when he wrote the letter, and he’s an independent voter.

"I don't want to make this about me at all, or even Greg. Lets just not endorse violence," FitzGerald says.

President Trump is scheduled to return to Montana Saturday, and Congressman Gianforte is expected to again join him on stage.

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