Lisa Triepke’s campaign troubles appeared right when she wasn’t expecting them. Just as ballots were about to be mailed, as the first-time mayoral candidate’s campaign was shifting from talking points to getting out the vote, damaging news sprang from the past: Front-page headlines in the Missoulian, two days apart, detailing Triepke’s extensive purchases while on food stamps and energy assistance, including two homes, an RV and a car.
The October surprise seemed sure to spook voters away from a candidate who made a divorce-induced stint on government assistance part of her public introduction.
In the second story, Triepke told the paper she was done talking about her past.
Or at least done talking to newspapers about it. On Oct. 19, the day the second Missoulian article was published, the candidate posted to Facebook, where she could speak on her own terms without follow-up questions from reporters, who she claimed were party to the revelations. “It is with the initiation of my ex-husband in collusion with local media and the opposition that these articles have surfaced with half-truths,” she wrote.
Triepke has said from the start that she intended to run an issues-oriented campaign, with “transparency” as issue No. 1. “We have tried to take a high road,” she told the Independent earlier in October. The high road has gotten awfully muddy. The embattled candidate claims that her campaign has been unfairly maligned by a meddling ex and an establishment media that’s cozy with her opponent. In the paranoid style of contemporary politics, the Triepke camp has retreated to its self-described “grassroots” campaign’s home turf—social media—to fight back. But the online battleground has proved to be at least as dirty.
Triepke has not elaborated on her claim that the media, her ex-husband and Mayor John Engen’s re-election campaign “colluded” to damage her. She and her campaign treasurer, Diane Beck, have not responded to repeated calls and emails seeking comment over the past week.
Triepke’s ex, Rod, was driven to deny having dished dirt to the Missoulian in a public post to his Facebook page. He acknowledged emailing financial details about the couple’s 2016 divorce to acquaintances who had been “asking how I could leave my kids in financial harm” after hearing of the candidate’s need for public assistance. He said he sent the email to Lisa and Beck to allow them to respond.
Rod, in subsequent correspondence with the Indy, documented an additional settlement of nearly $300,000 from a retirement account—doubling the amount reported by the Missoulian—and said Lisa also received $108,000 from the proceeds of the sale of a rental property around the time she moved out in 2015. Rod claims that after he posted on Facebook, Lisa’s campaign surrogates threatened through intermediaries to publicly reveal unflattering information about him.
The Triepkes’ public divorce records point to an acrimonious split, including a dispute over a few months of tutoring support for their oldest child. (Engen and his wife divorced in May, according to previously unreported county court records, but the public filings do not appear to include information relevant to the campaign.) No evidence points to Rod’s involvement in the Missoulian’s coverage of Lisa’s spending. Missoulian editor Kathy Best says the paper’s initial story was prompted by a letter to the editor signed “Jim Benton.” Neither the Missoulian nor the Indy could verify the existence of a letter writer by that name, but Best says she forwarded the allegations to the paper’s reporting staff for vetting. Subsequent information about vehicle purchases was provided by a self-identified attorney and “supporter of Triepke’s opponent” after the first story was published, which the paper disclosed in the follow-up story.
Triepke’s Facebook post doesn’t indicate whether she believed the paper’s “collusion” extended beyond an unsolicited information drop. But days later, a prominent Triepke surrogate, attorney Quentin Rhoades, of Rhoades, Siefert & Erickson, flagged what he argued was additional suspicious activity by the paper. Rhoades noticed that the paper had paid Facebook to “boost” its endorsement of Engen, and asked the Commissioner of Political Practices to rule the expenditure an unreported, illegal, corporate contribution to the mayor by Lee Enterprises, which owns the Missoulian and the Independent.
In an interview with the Indy, Rhoades described the boosted post as one in a series of “coincidences” that indicate coordination between the Missoulian and the Engen campaign. He points to the timing of the article on Triepke’s purchases, the editorial board’s praise of Engen in its endorsement and the newsroom’s photography choices. He also says newspaper staff and Engen campaign officials spend time together socially. Pressed to explain that claim, Rhoades said that Lee General Manager Matt Gibson and an Engen campaign official are “socially well acquainted.”
The Missoulian’s endorsement of Engen included an editor’s note stating that Gibson, a member of the paper’s editorial board, did not participate in its endorsement decision. Best tells the Indy she included the disclaimer as a response to “rumors and social media posts” linking Gibson to the Engen campaign. Gibson did attend editorial board interviews with both candidates, Best says, because other editorial board members were out of town.
Gibson, who oversees business operations at both papers, declined to comment on his social relationships, saying, “my personal life isn’t a matter for public discussion, and it has no bearing on the content of the Independent or the Missoulian.”
Commissioner Jeff Mangan swiftly dismissed Rhoades’ COPP complaint, determining that sponsoring Facebook posts is legitimate newspaper activity and that the post was boosted automatically, according to a Lee company formula, independent of the Engen campaign. The paper spent 76 cents to sponsor the post, Mangan found.
Triepke’s “collusion” accusation came a week after the Indy reported an attempt by her paid campaign consultant, Wes Spiker, to arrange a confidential meeting between this newspaper and Triepke’s team “to bring down John Engen by exposing him and his administration for their illegal activities” (see Meet Lisa Triepke, Oct. 12).
Rhoades’ scrutiny of Facebook posts came at the same time that Engen supporter Rep. Bryce Bennett filed his own complaint about sponsored posts on an anonymous pro-Triepke Facebook page titled “Vent Missoula.”
Social media has been a central pillar of Triepke’s campaign strategy, with Spiker, whose firm has managed the campaign’s web presence, describing social media in September as the campaign’s primary battlefield, and Triepke later calling it a “fantastic” tool.
Triepke’s campaign has had no bigger online advocate than the 200-plus followers of Vent Missoula, which has functioned as a kind of anti-Engen water cooler since it was created in August.
Bennett’s complaint claims that Vent Missoula is operating as an undisclosed political committee in support of Triepke. He presents as evidence an administrator post encouraging readers to vote for the candidate, as well as a sponsored post that received far more shares (70) than the page’s other posts. That post, from Oct. 19, features a list of common grievances against Engen with links to various articles—and one link (since deleted) to the divorce proceedings of a Norwegian man named Jon Engen.
Someone paid to boost the post, but who?
Mangan says the Facebook-related complaints in Missoula’s mayoral race stretch the state’s new campaign finance rules to their limit, but he offers two bright lines for when social media activity must be disclosed: 1) when social media users are paid to conduct campaign advocacy, and 2) when any user, except a news outlet, pays to promote a post that advocates for or against a candidate.
Mangan had yet to rule on Vent Missoula by press time, but the Indy’s own effort to learn about the group’s administration was met by a series of confusing responses.
The Indy first contacted Brandon Naasz, an official Triepke endorser who created an online petition that appeared on the Vent Missoula page. Naasz initially denied any involvement, but a few hours later, after Bennett’s complaint was filed, he sent a detailed response listing the date he started the page and the date he turned it over to another administrator. He explained that he was providing the new information “for transparency.”
Naasz was transparent only in comparison with the alleged new administrator, a person who contacted the Indy under the name “John Tyler.” Tyler presented himself as just a guy running a page, confused about what, exactly, the paper wanted to know. After writing that he would only be able to answer questions via email, he abruptly deleted the email account he’d been using.
At the same time, the LinkedIn page for a Missoula property manager/former attorney named Tyler John Theisen went dark. That’s because “John Tyler” was actually Tyler J. Theisen, who is also listed as a Triepke endorser on the candidate’s website. His previously public LinkedIn profile noted that Theisen is “actively engaged in public relations, speech writing, and political analysis for various political campaigns and organizations.”
Spiker has “liked” several posts on Vent Missoula from his personal Facebook account, though he denied to the Indy having ever heard of the group, or of Theisen, and Triepke’s campaign account “likes” the Vent Missoula page. Spiker Communications has charged Triepke thousands of dollars for an unitemized “press/publicity program” and “social media strategy”—expenses that were revealed only as a result of an earlier campaign finance ruling against the campaign. At one point, the campaign was managed by a nine-member volunteer committee, but Triepke campaign treasurer Beck did not respond to requests for members’ names.
Whether the mudslinging on Vent Missoula is tied to Triepke staff, surrogates or just unaffiliated supporters is one question that Mangan is investigating. He appears to have started the search at the most obvious possible place: by posting an inquiry on the page itself.
“Woah!” the administrator replied on Oct. 26. “Will reach out shortly, but FYI nobody here’s a politician, we just vent and post dank memes.”