- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 26, 2016

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) - An attorney for Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte has sent letters to television stations urging them to stop airing an attack ad because it claims Gianforte is from New Jersey and that he sued to eliminate a public access spot to a river.

Public lands access has emerged as a top issue in the race between Gianforte and incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. As Democrats keep pressuring him over the issue, Gianforte has released multiple ads rebutting claims that he sued the state to block public access on the East Gallatin River.

“The Bullock campaign just keeps trotting out this one-trick pony,” Gianforte campaign spokesman Aaron Flint said Tuesday. “It’s only July, and Montanans are already seeing through it.”

The ad by Good Jobs Montana PAC opens by saying, “A millionaire from New Jersey thinks you’re easily hooked,” and goes on to say, “Gianforte sued to eliminate a popular access spot next to his riverfront mansion.”

Gianforte is from California and grew up in Pennsylvania, but spent several years living in New Jersey. He filed a lawsuit against the state in 2009 over a dispute about an easement next to his property along the East Gallatin River, but then resolved the issue out of court.

The cease and desist letter sent earlier this month by Anita Milanovich of the Bopp Law Firm says the political-action committee’s ad is false. Stations that publish false statements made knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth are liable for defamation, according to the letter posted by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

“Good Jobs Montana PAC’s advertisement is false, misleading and deceptive,” Milanovich wrote. “We demand that you immediately cease airing this advertisement if you are airing it.”

The Montana Broadcasters Association is counseling television stations to consult their attorneys about whether to continue airing the ads, association president and CEO Dewey Bruce said Tuesday. Such cease-and-desist letters aren’t uncommon in an election season, but because the ad comes from an outside group and not a candidate, TV stations should proceed with caution, he said.

“With third-party ads, the broadcasters can be held liable for the content of the ad because they can refuse the ad,” Bruce said.

Bruce didn’t know whether any stations agreed to stop running the ad as a result of the letter. One station, KULR-TV in Billings, wrote a response directly to Gianforte’s attorney that said Gianforte spent numerous years in New Jersey before moving to Montana and that he did file the lawsuit.

“After careful consideration, we conclude that both statements are based in fact, and that no other action need be taken,” KULR national sales manager John Langeliers wrote in the letter.

Good Jobs Montana is a political-action committee registered in Billings and has received $600,000 so far this election cycle from the Democratic Governors Association, of which Bullock was chairman until December. Less than a week after the governors’ association donated $250,000 to the PAC in May, Good Jobs Montana spent more than $208,000 on ads opposing Gianforte, according to filings with the commissioner of political practices office.

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