Ethics boss says Montana conservatives broke rules

2013-07-10T12:25:00Z 2013-07-11T06:26:04Z Ethics boss says Montana conservatives broke rulesBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — In one of his first rulings, Montana’s new political practices commissioner has upheld state laws that require groups to fully disclose any outside political spending.

In a decision Tuesday, Commissioner Jonathan Motl said he found sufficient evidence that the Montana Conservative Coalition did not file timely reports on its spending for a flier attacking a candidate in a 2012 Republican state Senate primary in Ravalli County.

“There is much of Montana’s election and candidate culture at stake in these decisions,” Motl said. “Montanans have long expressed their majoritarian view for open and fair elections with maximum reporting and disclosure of money spent in elections.

“Candidates run with the expectation that they will not be bushwhacked by late, undisclosed and unreported expenditures.”

Motl said he will be looking into a dozen more complaints raising similar issues, and that he intends to complete his review early enough “to serve as a guide to candidates and the public during the 2014 election.”

The violations stem from the Conservative Coalition’s independent spending on a mailer attacking former Rep. Gary MacLaren, R-Victor, and supporting former Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, during their Republican Senate primary contest in June 2012. The mailer was sent to voters shortly before the primary election.

Motl has turned the matter over to Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher for possible prosecution. If Gallagher chooses not to prosecute, Motl can take up the case.

Jake Eaton, a consultant and vendor for the Montana Conservative Coalition, said the violations amounted to “a couple of clerical errors on some reports” that Motl is “trying to make into something sinister and it’s not.”

“Jon Motl is the fourth Democratic hack that’s been appointed to be commissioner of political practices in three years,” Eaton said. “He’s certainly living up to our expectation.”

MacLaren filed the complaint in September 2012, after losing to Thomas, 58 percent to 42 percent, in the GOP primary. Thomas went on to win the general election and is now a state senator.

MacLaren said the Montana Conservative Coalition spent money on the flier without properly reporting it or disclosing the source of funds, the amounts spent or the independent nature of the spending.

The coalition published and mailed a flier to 2,200 households shortly before the election. The commissioner’s investigators determined the flier cost $1,650 to design, print and mail.

The flier said Ravalli County “needs a true conservative” and supported Thomas, and called MacLaren “the most liberal Republican in government” and a “big spender.”

The Montana Conservative Coalition has registered as a political action committee and during the 2012 election cycle reported raising more than $18,000 and spending more than $15,000. It is soliciting funds for the 2014 elections.

Motl said the $1,650 expense wasn’t reported by the Conservative Coalition until its post-general election report filed Nov. 26, six months after it spent the money.

The coalition reported receipts of $525 and expenses of $463 in its report from Jan. 1 to May 19, 2012. In its post-primary election report covering from May 20 to June 20, the coalition listed receipts of $100 and expenses of $58. It failed to file any 24-hour spending reports prior to the primary election.

In the investigation, Motl said his office also found the Montana Conservative Coalition failed to report in a timely way the independent expenditures it made on behalf of Mike Fasbender, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Lewis and Clark County commissioner in 2012.

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