The Republican candidate for Montana’s open congressional seat was cited for misdemeanor assault Wednesday after a political reporter for the Guardian newspaper complained he was grabbed and slammed to the ground.
The announcement by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office followed a bizarre series of events in which reporter Ben Jacobs — who is from Baltimore — alleged that the frontrunner in the race, wealthy software entrepreneur Greg Gianforte, erupted under questioning and body slammed him.
“Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses," Jacobs tweeted, as he reported the incident — witnessed by three Fox News journalists — to police.
“Following multiple interviews and an investigation by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, it was determined there was probable cause to issue a citation to Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault,” Sheriff Brian Gootkin said in a statement Wednesday night.
He said the nature of the injuries “did not meet the statutory elements of felony assault.”
Gianforte was scheduled to appear in court sometime before June 7, the statement said. The potential penalty is six months in county jail and a fine of up to $500.
Jacobs graduated from the Park School in Brooklandville in 2002.
The incident comes one day before a hotly contested special election in Montana between Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist, but with its political impact remained to be seen.
The Missoulian and Billings Gazette newspapers announced they were rescinding endorsements of the GOP candidate.
But more than 250,000 absentee ballots had already been cast by Wednesday, which could end up being well over half the total.
Montana newspapers were full of details of the confrontation.
In an audio recording posted by the Guardian, Jacobs can be heard persistently asking Gianforte about the Republican healthcare proposal. Then there is a sudden crashing noise, and Gianforte can be heard shouting at the reporter: “I’m sick and tired of you guys! The last time you came in here you did the same thing! Get the hell out of here!”
Jacobs was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. “He took me to the ground,” Jacobs said in an interview quoted in a story for the Guardian’s U.S. edition. “This is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me in reporting on politics.”
One of the Fox News journalists who was in the room wrote an account of the incident.
“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” Alicia Acuna said in a first-person account on FoxNews.com. She was accompanied by field producer Faith Mangan and photographer Keith Railey.
“Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top [of] the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I'm sick and tired of this!’” Acuna wrote.
“Jacobs scrambled to his knees and said something about his glasses being broken,” she continued. “He asked Faith, Keith and myself for our names. In shock, we did not answer. He then said he wanted the police called and went to leave. Gianforte looked at the three of us and repeatedly apologized. At that point, I told him and [campaign spokesman Shane] Scanlon, who was now present, that we needed a moment. The men then left.”
Acuna added: “To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff's deputies.”
Jacobs' mother, Hillary Jacobs, said her son grew up in Mount Washington. After graduating from Park, he studied history at Grinnell College in Iowa and attended Duke University School of Law.
“He’s always been interested in history and politics,” and has worked on political campaigns, said his mother, who lives in Mount Washington.
She said her son developed those interests as a youngster after visiting Baltimore’s Washington Monument in Mount Vernon and becoming interested in U.S. presidents.
Hillary Jacobs heard about the Wednesday night incident on Twitter -- “the way everyone finds everything out these days,” she said. “We actually got more information by following Twitter and watching the news because we couldn’t speak to him.”
She said the audio of the alleged assault was captured on Ben Jacobs’ cellphone, so for a while he was not communicating by phone. But at one point, she said, he was able to text to say he was at the hospital but not to worry.
“So I kept that in mind, however, hearing the audio over and over again was more than a little disconcerting,” she said. “It’s something that you don’t necessarily expect to happen to a reporter. But obviously based on all the coverage that’s occurred since the incident, everyone is surprised that this kind of incident occurred.”
She said she has spoken with her son only briefly because he is working, covering the election Thursday in addition to becoming part of the story.
“The Guardian sent him to cover the election, so this is a working day for him,” she said. “It’s not a typical election coverage day for him.
“I knew he’d be back on the job because that’s what he does,” Hillary Jacobs said.
In a statement before the sheriff’s citation was issued, Scanlon said that Jacobs made the first move, after Gianforte tried to grab an iPhone recorder that had been “aggressively shoved” in the candidate’s face.
Scanlon said Jacobs had entered an office where Gianforte was giving a separate interview and “began asking badgering questions.”
“Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground,” he said.
He concluded: “It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.”
The incident was partially witnessed by a BuzzFeed reporter Alexis Levinson, who tweeted the following account of events:
“This happened behind a half-closed door, so I didn't see it all, but here's what it looked like from the outside — Ben walked into a room where a local TV crew was set up for an interview with Gianforte. All of a sudden I heard a giant crash and saw Ben's feet fly in the air as he hit the floor. Heard very angry yelling (as did all the volunteers in the room) — sounded like Gianforte.”
Levinson said Jacobs then walked out holding his broken glasses in his hand and said, “He just body-slammed me.” An aide then told Jacobs to leave, Levinson said.
Gianforte has a reputation in Montana political circles for being prickly, and has been known to be especially testy with reporters. In one widely circulated radio interview on Montana Public Radio he repeatedly sparred verbally with the reporter.
Some members of the public were quick to rally to the GOP candidate’s Gianforte’s, calling Jacobs a liberal reporter who baited the GOP candidate. "You give yourselves too much credit,” read one reaction on Twitter, directed at reporters covering the incident. “You think voters will abandon their candidate cuz some lib journo made up BS.”
The incident lasted less than 60 seconds, according to audio posted by the Guardian.
Jacobs asks Gianforte how he felt about the score on the GOP healthcare bill just published by the Congressional Budget Office, which was the biggest congressional story of the day.
“You were waiting to make a decision about health care until you saw the [score], and it just came out,” Jacobs said.
“We’ll talk to you about that later,” Gianforte said. At this point in the conversation, both men’s voices are calm.
“Yeah, but there’s not gonna be time. I’m just curious if—“
“OK, speak with Shane, please,” Gianforte said, apparently referring to Scanlon.
“But—” Jacobs said, and then the audio gets staticky, and a crashing noise can be heard.
Gianforte can be heard raising his voice in anger.
“I’m sick and tired of you guys!” Gianforte yelled. “The last time you came in here you did the same thing! Get the hell out of here!”
“Jesus!” Jacobs said.
Gianforte: “Get the hell out of here! The last time you did the same thing. You with the Guardian?”
Jacobs: “Yes, and you just broke my glasses.”
Gianforte: “The last guy did the same damn thing.”
Jacobs: “You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte said, his voice starting to calm.
“You’d like me to get the hell out of here, I’d like to also call the police,” Jacobs said.
Then, Jacobs addressed others in the room, apparently one or more aides for Gianforte: “Can I get you guys’ names?”
“Hey, you gotta leave,” another man responded.
“He just body-slammed me.”
“You gotta leave,” the man said again.
Jacobs reported the incident to the police, and the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office responded to the scene, Bozeman Daily Chronicle reporter Whitney Bermes tweeted.
Another BuzzFeed reporter said Gianforte left the area before his campaign event was set to begin.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ national president, Lynn Walsh, issued a statement of support for Jacobs on Wednesday night.
“It is never acceptable to physically harm or arrest a journalist who is simply trying to do his or her job,” Walsh said. “This country was founded on many freedoms, one of those being Freedom of the Press. When journalists are thwarted and worse, assaulted or harmed, for doing their jobs, it is the public and the freedoms America was founded on that are lost."
When asked for his reaction, Quist told reporters he hadn’t heard about the incident, and added, “That’s not for me to talk about — that’s more a matter for law enforcement, I guess,” according to a video taken by Washington Post reporter David Weigel.
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak and Baltimore Sun reporters Lorraine Mirabella and Sean Welsh contributed to this article.