Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton faced criticism this week for awarding a $265,000 contract to a political ally. The Associated Press reported that Stapleton paid longtime political ally Jake Eaton $265,000 for a rush printing job to fix mistakes in the Montana state voter information pamphlet.
Now, MTPR has learned that Stapleton has other financial ties to Eaton, and has also hired Eaton's wife to defend the Secretary of State’s office in court.
Stapleton insists there was no favoritism involved, that he took bids on the work, and that Eaton’s company was best suited to do the printing and distribute it quickly.
Montana Public Radio has learned that Stapleton last spring contracted with Eaton’s wife, Emily Jones, to defend the Secretary of State’s office in a lawsuit, paying her more than $59,000.
In an emailed statement, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said he offered legal services within his office to represent the Secretary of State’s office at an hourly rate significantly lower than Jones charged, but that Stapleton declined. Fox said Stapleton, “made a political decision to needlessly spend $60,000 on outside counsel and lost the case."
Stapleton says he hired the law firm he thought had the best chance of winning the case, and would do the same thing over again.
Together, Jones and Eaton contributed $2,000 to Stapleton’s 2016 run for secretary of state.
MTPR's Corin Cates-Carney has been pursuing this story at our state capitol bureau and joins News Director Eric Whitney with more information.
Eric Whitney: Corin, that $265,000 contract we mentioned, remind us what that was about.
Corin Cates-Carney: Two weeks ago Secretary of State Stapleton announced that it had erred in its original printing of the state’s election guide, but had quickly printed and distributed a correction, which cost taxpayers $265,000. This week, the Associated Press reported that the contractor for that rush-order job was Jake Eaton, a Republican political consultant and the former head of the state GOP.
EW: You looked into Stapleton’s relationship with Jake Eaton, and found that it’s more than just an acquaintance through the state Republican Party?
CCC: Stapleton wouldn’t consent to an on-tape interview, but when I spoke to him today, he said he’s known Eaton for about 18 years. And Eaton donated about a $1,000 to Stapleton’s 2016 political campaign when he was running for Secretary of State. Eaton also did some work for them. When Stapleton was running for Secretary of State in 2016, finance reports show two companies listed under Eaton’s address did nearly $28,000 dollars in business for the campaign.
EW: That's a pretty significant relationship, but Stapleton and his staff are pretty insistent that there was no favoritism involved in Jake Eaton getting the contract, right?
CCC: Right - Stapleton says there was very little time to do a lot of work, and Ultra Graphics, this company run by Jake Eaton who Stapleton considers a buddy, Stapleton says this business was the only place in Montana that could get the job done on time.
EW: You also learned that Secretary of State Stapleton’s office has hired Jake Eaton’s wife.
CCC: Yes. Stapleton’s office hired Emily Jones to defend his office in a high profile lawsuit last summer. This was when the Montana Democratic Party sued the Secretary of State for allowing the Green party on this year’s ballot.
EW: Why did he hire an outside law firm? Doesn’t the Secretary of State's Office usually have its own in-house legal counsel? Or can’t they ask the State Attorney General to defend them?
CCC: When I talked to Stapleton about that he said he didn't hire the state attorneys available for a couple of reasons. One, he really wanted to win this case. He said he was upset that Democrats hired a big-name international law firm called Perkins Coie to represent them. He said you get what you pay for, and he was willing to pay up for what he thought was better legal counsel. Another reason is that Stapleton saw the case in some ways as more of a political fight than a legal one, and he wanted someone he could trust in the courtroom. He had the Secretary of State’s office hire his old political attorney Emily Jones, who he’d worked with before. Stapleton says he could have gone the route of hiring one of the attorneys in the Attorney General's office, but he says he wouldn't have known anything about them, including their political leanings.
EW: I can imagine that turning to outside counsel was pretty expensive compared what the Attorney General’s office charges?
CCC: Montana has what’s called Agency Legal Services Bureau, it’s part of the Attorneys General’s Office. And when state agencies need legal counsel they can hire out staff there for $106 an hour, which is relatively cheap in the world of per hour rates for attorneys. In comparison, at times, the rates from the outside counsel hired by the Secretary of State’s office were almost double that. According to billing invoices sent from the Jones Law Firm to the Secretary of State’s Office, most hourly rates ranged from $165 an hour to $200 an hour. The total bill for the Jones Law Firm to represent the Secretary of State’s office in the Green Party case was just over $59,000.
EW: That’s interesting what Stapleton said about politics, because Attorney General Tim Fox, like Stapleton, is a Republican. Did you ask Fox what he thought of Stapleton’s decision to hire an outside firm instead of lawyers in his office?
CCC: Yeah, and he had some harsh words about that. In an email, he said he didn’t appreciate the Secretary of State questioning the professionalism and expertise of his staff. And he questioned why the Secretary of State didn’t use the state attorneys for this case when they do for others. Fox, in an email, wrote, “Ultimately, Stapleton made a political decision to needlessly spend $60,000 on outside counsel and lost the case.”
EW: Does Stapleton regret going with outside counsel?
CCC: No, and he says he had the best chance of winning by hiring the council he did. And he said he’d do it all again.
EW: That was a tough loss for Stapleton, who said county clerks had counted enough signatures to allow Greens on the ballot. It was also a loss for Montana Republicans, who were hoping to have the Green party on Montana’s ballot and that would siphon some of those liberal votes away from Democrats and give Republicans a better chance of winning this year. So, at this point, we have Secretary of State Corey Stapleton being criticized for decisions he’s made about who to hire using taxpayer money, but he hasn’t broken any policies or laws? He's not facing official sanctions for any of this?
CCC: What Stapleton did was legal. He says he saw jobs that needed to be done and says he did what he needed to, within the rules, to get them done. Stapleton told me he expects to get criticized sometimes for his decisions and he’s going to keep doing what he thinks is right. Even if others, including the State’s Attorney General, disagree.