HELENA — The Montana Republican Party gave governor candidate Rick Hill’s campaign a $500,000 donation during the six-day period after a federal judge threw out the state’s campaign contribution limits and before a federal appeals court reinstated them.
The campaign of his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Steve Bullock, cried foul on Wednesday. The Bullock campaign filed a complaint with the state political practices commissioner accusing Hill’s campaign of breaking the law
It said Hill’s campaign took the $500,000 from the Republican Party, despite having already accepted the maximum allowable contribution of $22,600 from the Republican Party.
“It is absolutely incredible,” said Bullock’s campaign manager, Kevin O’Brien. “I think Hill will go to any level, including committing crimes, to win. This is Watergate level.”
Hill’s campaign manager Brock Lowrance defended the donation, saying the campaign had done nothing wrong in accepting the GOP donation during the six-day window.
“The judge said it was legal,” Lowrance said. “We relied on that. It’s consistent with the order of a sitting federal judge. There should be no surprise the Montana Republican Party is supporting the Republican nominee for governor.”
The Montana Republican Party also gave $32,000 to the attorney general candidate Tim Fox during the six-day window, executive director Bowen Greenwood said.
The dispute revolves around the six-day period earlier this month when the state’s election contributions limits were tossed out and before they were restored.
On Oct. 3, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena declared Montana’s campaign donation limits unconstitutional. Bullock, as attorney general, appealed the ruling through his office.
Six days later, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the limits that Lovell struck down. They will remain intact at least until Election Day.
Greenwood said the party didn’t have that much cash in its treasury to make the $532,000 in donations, but went out and raised it during the window. As of Aug 30, the state party reported a cash balance of $64,450 with the Federal Election Commission.
“Contrary to popular belief, we don’t keep money lying around,” Greenwood said. “If I want to spend it, I have to raise it.”
He declined to identify the sources of the money, but said it would show up when the state party files its next campaign finance report later this month.
Greenwood defended the legality of the donations during the six-day period..
The GOP wrote Hill’s campaign the check on Oct. 4, a little more than a month before the Nov. 6 general election, he said.
Bullock and Hill are locked in a tight race for governor. A Lee Newspapers poll taken Sept. 17-19 showed Bullock at 44 percent, Hill at 43 percent and Libertarian Ron Vandevender at 2 percent, with 11 percent undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Through Sept. 5, Bullock, who had token primary opposition, had raised in $1,428,027, while Hill, who won a seven-way primary, had collected $1,130,566. New financial reports are due Monday.
On Tuesday, Bullock’s campaign treasurer had formally requested that Hill’s campaign open its books for inspection, a practice allowed under state law.
Instead, on Wednesday morning, Hill’s campaign issued a press release with its draft campaign finance report. Hill’s campaign said he had raised more than $685,000 since Sept. 6, including the $500,000 donation from the Republican Party.
“We’re proud of the fundraising success we have had and appreciate the generosity of the Montana Republican Party,” Lowrance said.
The Hill campaign manager said Bullock had “created a straw-man primary opponent so he could skirt the rules and raise more money,” while the Hill campaign “walked into the general election with a severe disadvantage.”
Bullock had no primary opponent until the day of the filing deadline when Heather Margolis, a political newcomer from Helena, filed. Margolis, who denied she was put up to running by the Bullock campaign, polled only 13 percent of the vote.
Montana law allows a governor candidate with a primary opponent to raise up to $630 for the primary and $630 for the general election from the same donor. An unopposed candidate in the primary can raise only up to $630 per donor.