Things are getting chippy among third party groups in Montana’s Supreme Court race.
A complaint filed Tuesday with Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices accuses the group Montanans for Experienced Judges of not revealing its economic interest to voters.
The group, which supports judicial candidate Dirk Sandefur, draws nearly all of its money from attorneys, said Jake Eaton, a Republican political operative.
Eaton wants the attorneys fined for not disclosing who they are, particularly the group’s treasurer, Billings attorney John Heenan.
“These violations are especially troubling since Mr. Heenan is currently serving as legal counsel for the Commissioner of Political Practices in active court proceedings,” Eaton said in his complaint.
Eaton is asking Heenan receive the maximum penalty of $500.
Heenan, who represents the commisisoner for free, said Wednesday he changed the group’s name to show that it represented lawyers. But he also vowed to conscript new donors who aren't attorneys so that the original name could be restored.
The new title, Lawyers and Montanans for Experienced Judges, was used for a few hours Wednesday before 10 new, non-attorney donors made it possible to again use Montanans for Experienced Judges. The group has raised about $2,000 so far this year. Most of that money before Wednesday came from attorneys or lawyer groups.
Heenan told The Gazette that Eaton, who has done business with several third party advocacy groups and political action committees, or PACs, is the pot calling the kettle black.
“The dark money PACS that Jake Eaton fronts have made over $400,000 in expenditures, and that’s going to go up,” Heenan said. “All the money is from out-of-state special interests trying to buy our Supreme Court.”
Eaton is co-owner of AlphaGraphics of Billings and The Political Company. Both businesses offer campaign services to conservative candidates and third parties.
Montana Supreme Court elections are nonpartisan.
The former executive director of the Montana Republican Party also is treasurer of “Set Em Free Sandefur,” a third party group that in ads accuses Sandefur, a Great Falls District Court judge, of being soft on criminals.
Heenan and Eaton aren’t strangers. Representing the Commissioner of Political Practices office, Heenan sued Montana Growth Network, a political group that dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the 2012 Montana Supreme Court race. MGN had paid Eaton’s company 47 Degrees North for political services that cycle.
Commissioner of Political Practices Johnathan Motl accused MGN of breaking state political law for attacking judicial candidate Ed Sheehy in 2012. MGN didn’t disclose where it got the money for the attacks on Sheehy. The group argued that its campaign was issue-based, in which case its donors could remain anonymous. Motl charged that MGN’s campaign was targeting a specific candidate and therefore voters had a right to know whose money was behind the attacks.