The Viral Impact of Dirty Politics in Montana
Coronavirus has infected the body politic just as it has infected hundreds of thousands of Americans. But whereas the virus takes advantage of average Americans to leave them weakened or dead, it is politicians who are taking advantage of the virus to try to damage or destroy their political opponents.
We’ve seen that most obviously in the claims by Democrats that President Trump is responsible for the thousands of American deaths caused by the pandemic, but there have also been targeted attacks against other politicians. Most notably, a handful of senators were accused of enriching themselves by using “insider knowledge” to profit from stock trades involving companies impacted either positively or negatively by coronavirus. This would be laughable were it not so destructive. I have written at HeartlandDiaryUSA.com about the absurdity of thinking that you needed to be an “insider” to figure out that the virus which forced China to lock down Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, might be a threat to both the health and economic well-being of nations everywhere.
Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler, among others, have been accused of making stock trades in mid-February that were supposedly informed by them getting closed-door briefings on the virus. The dubious idea is that they knew what was coming and no one else did, so they had some unfair advantage in trading. A quick look back at reporting from January disproves that notion. A story in the Daily Star linked by the Drudge Report on Jan. 22, for instance, noted that “billions could be at risk.” It’s not insider trading if it’s common knowledge.
But that’s not the end of the story. Here in Montana, an even more far-fetched version of that specious accusation is playing out in the GOP primary election campaign for governor. The top candidate in the race is Rep. Greg Gianforte (pictured, at left), who is giving up his congressional seat for a second chance at moving into the governor’s mansion. (In 2016, he lost to Democrat Steve Bullock, who in the wake of a failure-to-launch presidential campaign is now challenging Republican Steve Daines for a Senate seat.)
One of Gianforte’s two Republican opponents is Montana Attorney General Tim Fox (pictured, at center), who in a sign of desperation has taken a page out of the Democrats’ playbook and gone after Gianforte on trumped-up charges of insider trading. On April 9, Fox’s campaign manager, Jack Cutter, sent out a fundraising email claiming that “Greg is financing his gubernatorial campaign with profits derived from insider trading that capitalizes on the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The irony, however, is that Fox’s complaint is actually that Gianforte made money off the virus crisis not with insider knowledge, but rather with knowledge that was in the public sphere. You can’t make this stuff up. Remember, the complaint against Burr was that he had made stock trades in mid-February that relied on his access to secret briefings available only to members of Congress. Yet the allegation against Gianforte, which originated with liberal Montana blogger Don Pogreba, is that the congressman “began his stock purchases on January 2, just days after the scope of the threat from the novel coronavirus started to become known.”
Which is it? Was the danger of COVID-19 top secret until after mid-February? Or was it public knowledge on Jan. 2? You can’t have it both ways. Adding to the confusion is that the first human death from the virus wasn’t reported until Jan. 10. How could Gianforte have been profiteering a week before that even happened?
It seems like the main complaint against both Burr and Gianforte is that they possibly made money while a lot of other investors lost money. But there is a huge difference between insider trading and wise investing. Just as I was smart enough in January to pull all my 401(k) retirement money out of equities and park it in a fund that invests in T-bills, so too I would hope that the people who lead our nation were smart enough to see the risks ahead. Losing money should not be a qualification for members of Congress, who after all are responsible for a budget of nearly $5 trillion.
But that seems to be the point of this bogus allegation by Fox, who knows full well that Gianforte’s investments are all handled by an investment manager under a “blind investment agreement” that removes Gianforte from knowledge of investments till after the fact, when they are reported to the House of Representatives.
That’s not good enough for Fox, who seems to be running more as a Marxist than a Republican. As the Helena Independent Record reported: “Fox’s campaign contends that the trades, regardless of who made them, could result in profit for Gianforte.”
Whoa! A profit! How dare he! Even Pogreba, who originated the story that Gianforte had investments in companies that were doing work related to coronavirus, seemed shocked by Fox’s charge of “insider trading.”
“It’s an incredible claim,” Pogreba wrote on his Montana Post website on April 10. “I’m not sure — and never suggested — that Gianforte is engaging in insider trading, which makes the Fox campaign claim all the more explosive. Do they have additional evidence that Gianforte has broken the law? Are they exaggerating his sins (which include greed and dishonesty, to be precise) for political effect? Is this just the last desperate swing of a campaign that has failed to convince Montana Republicans that Fox is conservative enough to win their favor?”
The answers to those three questions are obvious. No, there isn’t any additional evidence. Yes, the charge was exaggerated for political effect, and for sure Fox is desperate. For the record, Gianforte didn’t receive a COVID-19 briefing as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee until Feb. 26, nearly a month after President Trump restricted travel from China. Yet Gianforte’s investment manager was making the suspect stock purchases as early as Jan. 2. Under that timeline, it simply can’t be insider trading, and don’t forget that Gianforte is not allowed to consult with his broker at any time. Nor, in case you were wondering, is any member of Gianforte’s family or anyone acting on his behalf.
Yet Cutter, who started the smear campaign on behalf of Fox by distorting Pogreba’s initial reporting into the phantom “insider trading” charge, was still pushing a fake narrative on April 15 when he told a reporter that “Congressman Gianforte has made no effort to stop the continued purchase of these profiteering stocks.”
How ridiculous! If Gianforte could stop the purchase, or could in any way influence the direction of the investments, it wouldn’t be a “blind” investment agreement. As for profiteering, it should be noted that NV5 Global, which accounted for seven of the 13 stock purchases labeled as suspicious by Pogreba, plummeted in value during the time when Gianforte was supposed to be “profiteering.” According to Yahoo Finance on March 20, NV5 Global share price had “dived 51% in the last thirty days.”
As for the fact that Gianforte was heavily invested in companies that had a footprint in matters related to coronavirus, that isn’t a red flag when you look more deeply. According to OpenSecrets.org, Gianforte had about $32 million in investments in 2018. Almost half of that was in communications and high-tech electronics. No surprise since Gianforte amassed his wealth as the founder of RightNow Technologies. But what is surprising, or at least highly revealing, is that nearly one-fourth of the remaining investments made in Gianforte’s name were in the health sector.
Remember, this was in 2018, a full two years before the coronavirus crisis. Investing in companies like Pfizer, Roche Holdings, and Johnson & Johnson was typical of the investment strategy employed on behalf of Gianforte long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. There was no reason to expect that strategy to change after the virus had surfaced. And if you think about it, capital investments in such pharmaceutical companies is what makes it possible for them to engage in the vital work at hand — looking for tests, cures and vaccines to combat the “invisible enemy.”
How can anyone interpret an investment in pharmaceuticals (especially through a blind investment agreement) as anything other than a vote of confidence in science and biotechnology? If Gianforte made a profit by supporting these companies, so too would all of America profit should their research prove successful at defeating the deadly scourge of coronavirus.
For conservatives in Montana, it is disheartening to see Fox, the state’s top law enforcement official as attorney general, stoop to promoting stupid and self-negating allegations of wrongdoing against his primary opponent. If he were really concerned about integrity, Fox could have begun by firing his campaign manager for starting a malicious rumor that was intended to weaken his political opponent and could ultimately cost Republicans the governor’s mansion for the fifth election in a row.
But since Cutter remains atop the Fox campaign, one has to assume that the attorney general endorses these tactics. If we hope to see a cure for dirty politics in Montana, it’s going to be up to the voters.