Gene Jarussi, a Billings lawyer and the state special attorney general in charge of litigating a series of lawsuits against political candidates for illegal campaign activities, is now himself facing allegations of political misconduct.
In a Nov. 27 complaint filed with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, Jake Eaton, a Republican political operative from Billings, claims Jarussi and his wife illegally coordinated with Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, during her 2016 re-election campaign.
“This is about a guy who spent two years crusading against Republicans using his position of public trust, who all the while was actively engaging in partisan politics and committing the very same violations he was accusing others of, and prosecuting them for,” Eaton said in an interview Thursday.
Jarussi and his wife, Karen Jarussi, deny the allegations and told The Montana Free Press that the complaint against them is politically motivated attempt at retribution.
“I believe that there is an element of retaliation in Jake Eaton’s complaint against Gene, Jessica Karjala, and me,” Karen Jarussi said in a statement.
Eaton is a witness in an ongoing Commissioner of Political Practices lawsuit against the Montana Growth Network, a so-called “dark money” group accused of, among other things, failing to report and disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars it spent in Montana’s 2010 elections.
Eaton’s former consulting firm, 47 North Communications, provided services to Montana Growth Network and Eaton is named as a witness in the lawsuit.
In July, a judge sanctioned Eaton’s wife, Billings attorney Emily Jones, and ordered her to pay $14,970 in legal fees to Jarussi, who is representing the state in the case. District Judge Kathy Seeley determined that Jones inappropriately warned other witnesses to withhold evidence. The judge also forwarded her order to Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Jones is also the attorney who in September 2016 sent Karjala a “cease and desist” letter on behalf of Karjala’s Republican challenger, Robert Saunders, in the heated 2016 House District 48 race. In the letter, Jones threatened to sue Karjala for defamation if she did not apologize for allegedly making false statements about Saunders.
Saunders lost his bid to unseat Karjala by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent.
“I believe that this is all very personal for Jake and his wife, and that he is trying to discredit Jessica, Gene and me in an attempt to defend his wife’s honor by creating problems for those he believes have offended her,” Karen Jarussi said.
For his part, Eaton says the allegations are credible, and serious.
Eaton said Jarussi should be removed from ongoing Commissioner of Political Practices litigation and he also called on Commissioner Jeff Mangan to recuse himself from the complaint and to appoint a Republican lawyer to handle the investigation.
“Since it has become the practice of the Commissioner’s office to appoint Democrat lawyers to pursue cases against Republican officeholders and organizations, I would hope that the Commissioner would continue to apply the same practice and appoint a Republican lawyer to pursue this case,” Eaton wrote.
Mangan acknowledged that the office had officially accepted the complaint and is in the process of reviewing it, but he declined to comment on the specifics of Eaton’s allegations.
Eaton claims the Jarussis facilitated “electioneering communication” that benefited Karjala’s campaign while Karen Jarussi was “acting as a paid agent” of Karjala’s campaign.
Karen Jarussi and Karjala deny that Karen was ever a “paid agent” of the campaign.
“It’s ridiculous,” Karjala said of the complaint. “(The Jarussis) are my voters, and they held a fundraiser for me. I reimbursed Karen for the food they provided. That’s a very common fundraising practice.”
The Karjala campaign reported paying Karen Jarussi $120 for the Sept. 15 fundraiser.
Karen Jarussi said the day after that fundraiser she registered a political action committee called Neighbors for Responsible Legislators for the purpose of opposing Saunders and supporting Karjala. Jarussi said the only purpose of the PAC was to create a door hanger opposing Saunders.
Jarussi said she never discussed the PAC or its activities with Karjala.
“Jessica had no idea I was doing this, because I never discussed it with her,” Jarussi said.
Karjala said she saw the hangers when she was knocking on doors on the campaign trail, but she didn’t know anything about Neighbors for Responsible Legislators.
“I saw the door literature because I knocked on a lot of doors, but it was a complete surprise to me,” Karjala said.
Eaton also claims Karjala “engaged Billings attorney Gene Jarussi to conduct opposition research” on Saunders, a claim that Karjala and Jarussi deny.
This allegation stems from the fact that Gene Jarussi conducted a videotaped interview of a woman in San Antonio, Texas, who claimed Saunders made racist comments to her when they were both students at Patrick Henry College, a conservative Christian college in Purcellville, Va.
“…(H)e made the statement that ‘about 100 years ago, I would have owned you,’” Eskew, who is black, told Jarussi.
Saunders denied making any racist comments.
Eaton alleges that the Jarussis should have reported at least a portion of their travel expenditures to San Antonio as campaign contributions to the Karjala campaign.
Jarussi said he met with Erin Eskew while he and his wife were in San Antonio visiting an ailing family member. Karen Jarussi’s brother, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and frontal lobe dementia, was at an assisted-living facility in San Antonio. The Jarussis said they were in San Antonio visiting family when Karjala forwarded Karen a Facebook message she received from a former classmate of Saunders who claimed Saunders had made racist remarks in the past.
“Jessica forwarded it to me, not Gene,” Karen said. “She shared it with me, as a friend and a constituent who had expressed concerns and questions about Saunders’ character. She did not ask me or Gene for any help, or to do anything with the email.”
Karen Jarussi said she and Gene decided on their own to contact the former classmate, Stewart Lundy. Lundy told the Jarussis that they should talk to Eskew. Karen said she looked Eskew up on Facebook and sent her a message. Eskew’s Facebook profile indicated she lived in Germany.
Karen said a few days later, Eskew contacted her and provided a telephone number with a San Antonio area code.
“Gene called her, and it turned out that she and her husband had just returned to San Antonio from Germany the previous Friday,” Karen stated. “Amazingly, she was staying within a couple of miles of my brother’s assisted living facility in San Antonio.”
The Jarussis said they met with Eskew and videotaped their conversation with her, and then provided the material to the Billings Gazette, which ran a newspaper article.
“At all times, Gene and I acted on our own behalf, to satisfy our own curiosity about Saunders’ background and character,” Karen Jarussi said.
Eaton claims the Jarussis provided a valuable service to the Karjala campaign that was not disclosed by the Karjala campaign or Neighbors for Responsible Legislators.
Karjala said she never spoke to the Jarussis about “opposition research” and she said she didn’t know that the Jarussis had contacted Saunders’ former classmates until after the news stories came out.
“That was shocking to me,” Karjala said. “I had no idea.”
Gene Jarussi said his service as the special attorney general acting on behalf of the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices does not preclude him from taking initiative as a citizen to investigate a candidate seeking to represent him in the Legislature.
“Is there a law against it? Am I not entitled to vote? Am I not entitled to speak?” Jarussi said. “Why shouldn’t I be able to be a citizen, also?”
Jarussi said Eaton’s claim that he has been “crusading against Republicans” lacks credibility when you look at the record.
“Here we had Republicans complaining about other Republicans breaking the law,” Jarussi said. “They violated the law, and each of every one of them admits to violating the law, or a jury has agreed that they violated the law. I didn’t crusade against anybody.”
Jarussi said he doesn’t believe Eaton’s complaint will have any impact on the ongoing litigation involving the Montana Growth Network. Jarussi said he will officially reply to Eaton’s allegations in a timely manner.
The respondents in the case have until Jan. 5, 2018, to respond to the allegations. Mangan said at that time the commissioner’s office will review the material and determine whether an investigation is warranted.
John Adams is the founding editor of The Montana Free Press, where this story was first published.