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A former executive director of the Montana Republican Party is accusing the state Democratic Party of coordinating with a statewide judicial candidate’s campaign and failing to properly disclose more than $300,000 in campaign expenditures during the election cycle that ended last November.

In a complaint filed with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices last month, Jake Eaton of Billings alleges the former treasurer for the Montana Democrats’ election committee also served on the 2016 campaign of Associate Justice Dirk Sandefur, who won his bid for an open seat on the Montana Supreme Court in November. Eaton claims the party failed to take necessary steps to prevent coordination.

He is also accusing the Democrats of not disclosing their support for Sandefur and cites 22 separate instances in which the party allegedly failed to identify which candidate a campaign expenditure was intended to benefit.

Eaton is co-owner of AlphaGraphics of Billings and The Political Company. Both businesses offer campaign services to conservative candidates and third parties. He also served as treasurer for a political action committee that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attempting to defeat Sandefur last year.

Montana’s campaign finance laws prohibit coordination between candidates and certain political groups involved in elections. The state requires a “firewall policy” in certain instances to ensure that any overlap between those campaigns and committees don’t run afoul of the law.

Although the organizational forms for Sandefur and the Democratic Party’s committee didn't list any of the same officers, the complaint notes that the email address initially listed for the Democrats’ treasurer was identical to that of Sandefur’s deputy treasurer. Eaton said Wednesday that the inclusion of the same email for both groups should at least raise questions over whether illegal coordination took place.

“It’s hard to discern, you’ve got the Sandefur campaign that lists Holly Giarraputo as the deputy treasurer. The Democratic Party does not, but appears to be using her by virtue of this email address,” he said.

Montana Democrats spokesman Roy Loewenstein called Eaton’s allegations “baseless,” and said the party would wait for a ruling from Jeff Mangan, the current political practices commissioner, before commenting further.

He also noted that the party has previously prevailed in several campaign rulings from the same election cycle. Those include a May decision against Ed Workman of Billings, who Mangan found had not properly disclosed contributions to 2017 legislative candidate Don Roberts, a Republican who lost his race against Sen. Margie McDonald, D-Billings.

Last year’s race between Juras and Sandefur was notable for setting a new record for campaign and political fundraising in a Montana Supreme Court election. Total political contributions during the non-partisan contest exceeded $1.6 million — breaking the previous record set in 2014.


Morning Reporter

General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.