Fagg enters Senate race

Former judge Russell Fagg announces his run for Senate at Billings Flying Service Inc. west of the airport on Saturday, October 14. Fagg will be running for Tester's seat.

BRONTE WITTPENN, Gazette staff

The Federal Elections Commission will review a complaint by a national Democratic group alleging that Montana GOP Senate candidate Russell Fagg’s exploratory committee was improper.

The American Democracy Legal Fund alleges that Russell Fagg’s exploratory committee was operating like a campaign for the four months leading up to Fagg’s official candidacy announcement Oct 14.

ADLF had announced Oct. 6 that it had filed its complaint against Fagg. However, the FEC had no record of receiving the complaint until a week after Fagg became an official candidate.

The group is asking the FEC to require Fagg to disclose any fundraising or campaign spending that occurred during his exploratory committee phase. The group is represented by Brad Woodhouse, who according to the Center for Responsive Politics, is a former strategist for President Barack Obama and a former communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He is also past president of American Bridge Political Action Committee, a key funding source for ADLF.

Fagg has insisted his exploratory committee passes legal muster. The committee was launched shortly after Fagg announced he was going to retire from his 20 years as a Yellowstone County District Judge. Judicial ethics prohibited Fagg from running for another public office before he retired. The day after retiring, Fagg announced his candidacy.

At issue is whether Fagg had made up his mind about running for office before entering the race Oct. 14. Federal elections law allows a person to explore a run for office without meeting the requirements of an actual candidate.

However, there are rules for an exploratory run. A person who has decided to run for office cannot operate under the less transparent requirements extended to people who are candidate curious. Exploratory committees don’t have to report how much money they’ve raised, or how that money is being spent. Candidates have to disclose donations and expenses.

The FEC “testing the waters” rules for exploratory committees don’t allow those who are candidate curious to advertise their intention to run for office, or raise money beyond what’s needed for an exploratory committee. Telling people you’re a candidate is also not allowed; neither is announcing party affiliation.

ADLF contends that Fagg crossed the line into candidacy during August. Fagg had an exploratory committee website with criticisms of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Fagg’s would-be Democratic opponent. Fagg was also distributing biographical information about himself. Then a district judge, Fagg was also looking for exploratory committee volunteers and had collected a few endorsements by Republicans.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.