Zinke’s campaign draws criticism from abuse victims

HELENA — In the Western District of Montana primary race, Republican candidate Ryan Zinke attacked Democrat Monica Tranel for being the attorney for a man convicted of sexual assault. However, several women have reached out to MTN, saying the resurgence of the issue has been painful for them.

“It’s deeply traumatizing to have that memory on your face,” said Danielle Moore.

Moore was one of four minor victims Robert Riggs was convicted of abusing in 2002 in Gallatin County. She says her experiences have left her with years of mental health challenges and she was shocked to discover her story is now becoming part of a political campaign.

Somehow I managed to fix something that happened to me 23 years ago and it is not right for politicians to use it for political gain, she said.

Since speaking with Moore, MTN has heard from two other victims, who shared her anger and concern about the Zinke campaign bringing the case.

Moore says she initially reported the abuse in 1999, but investigators closed the case after concluding there was insufficient evidence to support it. The case was later reopened after additional complaints were received. Riggs was eventually found guilty on four separate charges.

In 2011, Tranel represented Riggs as he contested his convictions, arguing that his original attorney did not mount an effective defense. She filed a brief with the Montana Supreme Court, asking for a new trial. The court rejected the request.

Last month, Zinke’s campaign began running a television ad that featured Riggs’ name and photo and described the crimes he was convicted of. It said Tranel “objected to being released from prison to roam the streets of our neighborhood” and was “too extreme for Montana.”

Moore says she found out about the ad when her sister saw it and shared it with her. She says she was particularly concerned about how it would affect other victims.

“Politicians really need to think about how their words affect the people who elect them,” she said. “We are human; they work for us. That’s the way it should be.”

All three women told MTN that they were particularly upset when they saw Riggs’ picture in the ad. All said they would like Zinke’s campaign to pull the ad and potentially apologize to those affected.

In response to MTN, Zinke’s campaign released a statement on Oct. 13 saying the ad had not aired for the previous several days.

“Ryan has deep sympathy for these women and respects their feelings,” they said. “The ad stopped airing a few days ago, but the question remains that America is facing a crime epidemic exacerbated by liberal extremists like Monica Tranel. Thank God she didn’t make it. Imagine the trauma the victims would have suffered if Monica had won, overturned the conviction, forced a new trial, and released him from prison. Ryan Zinke has spent his life chasing bad people, and Monica Tranel is trying to free them.”

During a debate at MTN’s Western District Congress in Bozeman earlier this month, Tranel called Zinke’s ad a lie. She said her claims had nothing to do with the underlying allegations against Riggs, and that there was “no set of circumstances where the person in question would be allowed to roam freely on the streets of the neighborhood.” She said all Americans have a right to due process under the law.

In a statement shared by her campaign on Oct. 15, Tranel said, “Ryan Zinke’s decision to air an ad based on lies, forcing victims and their families to relive this trauma, highlights the worst in our politics. My heart goes out to everyone involved.”

Victims MTN spoke to said they were not happy that Tranel was representing Riggs. However, they said they did not believe the issue should be used for political attacks.

“She’s wrong, but he’s wrong,” Moore said. “And I’m sick of the division in this country. All he does is hurt people. They don’t see that it hurts people.”

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