Montana congressman-elect to be sentenced for altercation with reporter

(Reuters) - Montana Republican congressman-elect Greg Gianforte is expected next week to enter a plea of no contest or a plea of guilty to misdemeanor assault after he was accused of attacking a reporter on the eve of his election, a prosecutor said on Thursday.

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Gianforte will appear in court in Bozeman on Monday and is scheduled to be sentenced the same day, after he enters his plea, Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said by phone.

The altercation has been portrayed as an illustration of the new toxicity of American politics. Critics of President Donald Trump say his strident criticism of the media has encouraged violence against journalists, while his supporters say many reporters are overly aggressive and disrespectful.

Under Montana law, a conviction for misdemeanor assault carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail. Lambert declined to say if his office would recommend jail time.

An attorney for Gianforte declined comment.

Gianforte, a technology executive, pledged in a letter on Wednesday to donate $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists and apologized to reporter Ben Jacobs, who accused Gianforte of assaulting him on May 24.

Gianforte won Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election the next day.

Jacobs, a political correspondent for the U.S. edition of The Guardian newspaper, said Gianforte “body-slammed” him, breaking his eyeglasses, when the reporter posed a question about healthcare during a campaign event in Bozeman.

Gianforte was heard shouting: “Get the hell out of here” and “I’m sick and tired of you guys” in an audio recording of the incident played repeatedly on cable news television.

Gianforte’s campaign initially suggested Jacobs instigated the incident by barging into the candidate’s office and shoving a recording device in his face as he was preparing for a TV interview.

But in a letter of apology to Jacobs issued on Wednesday, Gianforte said his “physical response to your legitimate question was unprofessional, unacceptable and unlawful.”

In return for Gianforte’s apology and his charitable donation, Jacobs agreed not to bring civil action against the congressman-elect.

Jacobs, at Gianforte’s request, also sent an email to Lambert, saying he would not object to Gianforte pleading no contest to misdemeanor assault, according to a release of liability document signed by Jacobs.

Lambert said his office could still insist that Gianforte plead guilty instead of pleading no contest. In either event, the plea would trigger Gianforte’s sentencing.

Lambert previously said additional, more serious criminal charges could be brought in the case. But he said on Thursday that after reviewing the evidence and discussing the matter with Jacobs, the prosecutor decided the misdemeanor charge was appropriate.

Gianforte defeated Democrat Rob Quist to fill the House seat vacated when Trump appointed Ryan Zinke as interior secretary. He is expected to be sworn in later this month.

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney