Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte is calling for Gov. Steve Bullock to fire his commerce director, over a tourism-promotion contract awarded to an out-of-state company.
At a gubernatorial debate in Billings this week, Gianforte said the contract was awarded in a “rigged process” that caused job losses in the state, and was “given to a family member” of someone in the Commerce Department.
But Bullock and state commerce officials told MTN News that the process awarding the contract to Hoffman York of Milwaukee this summer followed state law and involved no conflicts of interest.
Bullock told MTN News that it “frustrates me, in some respects” that an out-of-state company will be in charge of marketing Montana to tourists.
But Hoffman York scored the highest in the bidding process and state law does not allow any preference for Montana companies, he said.
“I will be keeping a close eye on this contract; it’s renewed every year,” Bullock said. “But, sure, I’ll be holding their feet to the fire.”
The Commerce Department began soliciting for a new marketing contract for its Office of Tourism earlier this year.
MercuryCSC, the Bozeman company that had the contract for 10 years, decided not to submit a bid. Its officials said the state had become dissatisfied with the company’s work and they doubted they would get the new contract.
A MercuryCSC official also told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that it had to lay off six people because it no longer had the state tourism-marketing contract – one-third of its workforce.
Five companies, including Hoffman York and two firms from Montana, made the final cut and their bids were scored by a committee that included Jenny Pelej, the Marketing Bureau chief for the Office of Tourism.
The scoring occurred at open meetings of the committee.
Hoffman York earned the highest score and the department negotiated a contract late this summer, worth $7 million to $9 million a year. The state has an option to renew the contract every year for an additional six years.
Pelej disclosed during the process that she has a distant relative who works as an executive for Hoffman York – the step-daughter of her late uncle.
Bullock said the relationship was properly disclosed and that Pelej’s relative had nothing to do with the contract.
Gianforte called it a “corrupt contract” and said Commerce Director Meg O’Leary should resign, considering that the state’s economy also has begun to decline in the past year.
Bullock dismissed the call for O’Leary’s resignation as a campaign ploy.
He also noted that Republicans lawmakers supported by Gianforte have twice killed a bill proposed by Bullock that would require recipients of state contracts to give a hiring preference to Montana workers.
“I would hope that, when I introduce that bill next time, including folks that would be marketing in Montana, that (Gianforte) would stand with me, saying we ought to have hiring preferences for Montanans,” Bullock said.