HELENA — In the congressional race for Montana’s western district, Republican candidate Ryan Zinke has attacked Democrat Monica Tranel for serving as an attorney for a man convicted of sexual abuse. But several women have reached out to MTN, saying to have that issue resurface has been painful for them.
“It’s deeply traumatizing to have that memory flashed right on your face,” said Danielle Moore.
Moore was one of four underage victims who Robert Riggs was convicted of abusing in 2002, in Gallatin County. She says she’s dealt with years of mental health challenges because of her experiences, and she was shocked to find her story was now becoming part of a political campaign.
“I have somehow been able to fix something that happened to me 23 years ago, and it’s not right for politicians to use that in political gain,” she said.
Since speaking to Moore, MTN has heard from three other victims, who shared her anger and concern about the Zinke campaign bringing up this case.
Moore says she initially reported being abused in 1999, but investigators closed the case after concluding there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate it. The case was reopened later, after additional complaints came forward. Riggs was eventually found guilty on four separate charges.
In 2011, Tranel represented Riggs as he challenged his convictions, claiming his original attorney hadn’t provided an effective defense. She filed a brief with the Montana Supreme Court, asking that he be given a new trial. The court denied the request.
Last month, Zinke’s campaign began running a television ad, prominently featuring Riggs’ name and photograph and describing the crimes he was convicted of. It said Tranel “argued to let him out of prison to roam our neighborhood streets” and was “too extreme for Montana.”
Moore says she learned about the ad when her sister saw it and shared it with her. She says she was especially concerned about how it would affect the other victims.
“Politicians really need to think about how their words impact the people that elect them,” she said. “We’re the people; they work for us. That is how it’s supposed to be.”
The women who spoke to MTN said they were particularly upset by seeing Riggs’ picture in the ad. Each said they would like Zinke’s campaign to withdraw 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 commercial stopped airing a few days ago, the issue however remains that America is facing a crime epidemic which is made worse by liberal extremists like Monica Tranel. Thank God she failed. Imagine the trauma that victims would have suffered had Monica won, vacated the conviction, forced a new trial, and had him released from prison. Ryan Zinke has spent his life putting evil people away and Monica Tranel is trying to set them free.”
During MTN’s western district congressional debate in Bozeman earlier this month, Tranel called Zinke’s ad a lie. She said her claims had nothing to do with the underlying charges against Riggs, and there was “no set of circumstances where the person in question would have been released to roam the neighborhood streets free." She said Americans are all entitled to due process under the law.
In a statement shared by her campaign 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 of our politics. My heart goes out to everyone involved.”
Victims MTN spoke to said they’re not happy that Tranel represented Riggs. However, they said they didn’t believe the issue should be used for political attacks.
“She’s not right either, but he’s not right either,” Moore said. “And I’m sick of the division in this country. All it’s doing is hurting people. They’re not seeing that it’s hurting people.”
After this story was initially published Oct. 18, the fourth woman victimized by Riggs reached out to MTN, agreeing with the three other women who spoke with us. Danielle L. said she felt compelled to come forward.
“I feel exposed and almost taken advantage of all over again by Mr. Zinke’s actions,” she said. “Reliving trauma that I work daily to heal from and make sense of is exhausting. As Danielle Moore said, using our stories for political gain is appalling.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated after MTN was contacted by another of the victims involved in this case.