An attorney for a reporter assaulted by a Montana congressman on the eve of his election said Monday that the lawmaker's spokesman lied when he claimed "no one was misled" by the Republican's initial denial of responsibility.
The lawyer for Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs sent a cease and desist letter telling U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and his staff to stop making "false and defamatory statements" about Jacobs.
A law enforcement report released this month revealed Gianforte falsely claimed Jacobs had instigated the May 24 confrontation at his campaign office.
Spokesman Travis Hall told The Associated Press in response to the Nov. 17 report that "no one was misled" by Gianforte's initial statements after the attack, when he told investigators with the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office that Jacobs had grabbed the lawmaker's wrist before both fell to the floor.
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Gianforte also told investigators that the "liberal media" was trying to "make a story" out of the attack, the law enforcement report said.
But multiple witnesses said Gianforte became enraged in his campaign office in Bozeman when Jacobs interrupted as the lawmaker was preparing for an interview with another news outlet.
Gianforte body-slammed Jacobs, threw him to the floor and began punching him, according to members of a Fox News crew and Gianforte's driver. Later that day, his campaign issued a statement blaming Jacobs as the instigator.
"Rep. Gianforte and his campaign did mislead law enforcement and the public — repeatedly — about Mr. Jacobs' actions in the moments before Rep. Gianforte assaulted him," Geoffrey Genth, Jacobs' attorney, said in the letter. "Please advise Rep. Gianforte, Mr. Hall and the Gianforte campaign of the need to cease and desist from making such statements."
The letter was addressed to Gianforte's attorney, William Mercer, a former U.S. attorney for Montana now in private practice.
Hall and Mercer did not immediately respond to telephone messages requesting comment. Jacobs and Genth declined to comment beyond Monday's letter.
Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert told the AP after details of the investigation became public that Gianforte had misled investigators. Lambert, a Republican, said he did not pursue a charge of obstruction of justice because he was focused on the assault.
Gianforte, a Bozeman high tech entrepreneur, apologized to Jacobs at his election-night victory party and eventually pleaded guilty to criminal assault.
He paid a $385 fine and completed 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management counseling. He also donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In a June 7 letter that resulted from a legal settlement with the reporter, Gianforte stated that Jacobs "did not initiate any physical contact with me" and "had no right to respond the way I did to your legitimate question about healthcare policy."
The assault came too late to change the outcome in the special election to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke. Many Montana voters already had cast their ballots by mail.
At least six Democrats have lined up hoping to challenge Gianforte in the 2018 election.