HELENA — The Montana Republican Party told a judge Thursday that Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock wrongly raised campaign money without declaring the office he was seeking on compliance forms.
The GOP asked Judge Wayne Phillips to force the commissioner of political practices, who previously dismissed the complaint, to reconsider the matter. The commissioner's office argued that the decision is not reviewable by the courts and pointed out that the office has a history of allowing candidates to raise money before formally declaring the office they were seeking.
The court case also featured a seemingly ironic change of tune for major players in some high-profile cases dealing with Montana campaign finance law.
Montana Republican Party attorney Jim Brown has argued in federal court that many Montana campaign finance laws are onerous and unconstitutional. He serves as local counsel for a conservative group that successfully challenged the state's 100-year-old Corrupt Practices Act in a battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But on Thursday he argued that disclosure on campaign forms of the office sought by a candidate is critical to the political regulation "scheme."
"What we are really seeking here is a declaratory ruling on the meaning of the statute so our party and our candidates can act properly," Brown told Phillips.
And Bullock, who has fought in the other lawsuits for more transparency as he seeks to preserve Montana's campaign finance laws, has argued that he did not need to disclose which office he was seeking last year while he was raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. He eventually declared in September he would run for governor and now is facing Republican Rick Hill in a general election battle.
Bullock was raising money for an unspecified statewide office months before he announced his candidacy for governor on Sept. 7. Many speculated at the time that he would eventually run for the governor's office
And nearly three months before announcing he would run for governor, Bullock's campaign website was changed to let donors send in up to $1,200 — even though the limit from an individual donor to an attorney general candidate is $600. Only a candidate for governor can accept donations of $1,200 among the Montana statewide offices.
But state lawyers told Phillips that past and present commissioners of political practice have said that nothing in state law prevents raising money prior to declaring an office — as long as all donations and expenditures are otherwise reported as usual.
A formal declaration on the fundraising forms would need to be made by the time the candidate files for ballot access with the secretary of state.
The Montana Republican Party lawsuit was filed against former Commissioner of Political Practices Dave Gallik, who has since left the office. But office staffers testified Thursday that the commissioner prior to Gallik, Jennifer Hensley, crafted the decision that Gallik finalized.
"I thought the decision was fine. I didn't disagree with her," said longtime COPP staffer Mary Baker. "I think the law allows for a candidate to file 'unknown' until January through March in the filing period, at which point they are going to have to declare what they are running for."
The GOP complaint also alleges that Gallik should have recused himself from the case since he once donated to Bullock before taking his present position.
Phillips did not indicate how he might rule, although he pointed out that it seemed the donation may not constitute a conflict of interest since it was made prior to Gallik taking office. Phillips also agreed with COPP lawyers that allowing court review of every discretionary decision made by the commissioner could open the floodgates to partisan legal wrangling.
But Phillips also acknowledged the GOP makes some good points, in particular that the law seems to allow for the legal review.
The judge, from Lewistown, took the case after Helena judges who know Bullock recused themselves.
Phillips made headlines last year after freeing killer Barry Beach — after he spent three decades in prison —over the objections of the attorney general's office. Bullock's office is now arguing to the Montana Supreme Court that Phillips made the wrong decision in that case.