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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Secretary Of State: Awarding Contract To Friend Was Right For Voters

Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.
Courtesy Montana Secretary of State.

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton on Tuesday defended his decision to award an emergency $265,000 contract to a friend's printing company, saying he did what was right for state voters.

Stapleton, a Republican, testified before the State Administration and Veterans Affairs Committee, which oversees his office, about the contract awarded to former state Republican Party Executive Director Jake Eaton.

The company printed and distributed 470,000 mailers on Oct. 12 that corrected mistakes in the Montana Voter Information Pamphlet. The action came three days after the company was first contacted about the job and the same day that absentee ballots were sent to voters across the state.

Stapleton told the committee that Eaton's Ultra Graphics, a Billings printing company formerly known as Alpha Graphics, was the only one in the state that could do the job within that timeframe so voters had accurate information before casting ballots.

He also said opponents of a ballot measure to add new standards to mine cleanups threatened to sue over the pamphlet's errors, which was also a consideration in the decision.

"Yes, the person who runs that now is a friend of mine," Stapleton said. "I've done business with Alpha Graphics and Ultra Graphics for years, long before it was owned by anybody that I would know. The point is, we did what was right for the voters."

Eaton was revealed as the winning contractor after a public-records request by The Associated Press.

The committee's chairwoman, Sen. Sue Malek, a Missoula Democrat, asked Stapleton to testify after a Billings Gazette editorial, citing the AP's reporting, called for Stapleton to be questioned about that contract and a $60,000 contract awarded to Eaton's wife, Billings attorney Emily Jones, to defend Stapleton's office in a lawsuit.

Malek said she considered it unusual that Stapleton dealt directly with Eaton instead of including the state Department of Administration's print and mail services in those negotiations. She also questioned how the mistake could have happened, and wondered whether staffing cuts to Stapleton's office were a factor.
"I just don't understand how this happened," she said.

The addendum correcting mistakes in the 2018 Montana Voter Guide.
The addendum correcting mistakes in the 2018 Montana Voter Guide.

Stapleton did not address any staffing cuts within his office. He said that if the contract had been awarded to an Arizona company that had bid on the job, it would have taken Montana voters an extra day or two to receive the corrections — and as many as 50,000 people could have sent back their absentee ballots by then.

Stapleton also called news reports that the Arizona company submitted a less expensive bid erroneous, and he said Eaton's bid was the cheapest.

"In the end we had to pick somebody, but we picked the cheaper one, the one that was in state and the one that would get it to voters on time, because nobody else could," he said.

The facts don't bear that out that Ultra Graphics made the lowest bid, according to documents detailing the bids.

Stapleton cited the higher of two bids submitted by the Arizona company in claiming that Eaton's bid was lowest. However, he made no mention that his office had initially requested two bids — one for a postcard with the corrections, and another for a larger sheet — and that the Arizona company's postcard bid was more than $14,000 below Ultra Graphics' bid, including postage.

But then Stapleton's office changed the specifications because Eaton's office had enough paper of a different size in stock, and the Arizona company did not get the opportunity to bid on the new specifications, Department of Administration spokeswoman Amber Conger said.

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