Montana Public Service Commissioner Tony O'Donnell gave $3,000 to Rodney Garcia for his legislative campaign, but both men say it wasn't a campaign contribution.
Call it a loan between friends.
“Did I borrow it for the campaign?" said Garcia. "I borrowed it for a personal loan to use on my campaign. Yes.”
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Commissioner Jeff Mangan has advised Garcia to give back the money, because it's roughly 17 times the limit for individual campaign contributions.
But, O'Donnell and Garcia both insist Mangan is wrong. They argue the money was exchanged as a personal loan, making everything above board.
“It’s a personal loan from me to Rodney," O'Donnell said. "Rodney then loaned it to the campaign."
Garcia, 64, is the Republican candidate for House District 52. He won a two-person primary in June and faces Democrat Amelia Marquez this fall.
Garcia is retired from oilfield work and was planning a trip out of the country with his family this year. Instead, he was swept into candidacy.
“Tony (O'Donnell) and them guys asked me to run for office," Garcia said. "I said, 'All my money's in my trip and other financials.'”
So O'Donnell agreed to loan the $3,000 to Garcia, who said he would use it for the campaign.
But to make sure everything was on the level, O'Donnell called the Commissioner of Political Practices. COPP documents say O'Donnell called on May 24 and asked how Garcia should report the loan. Mangan told him that it was against the law because it was above the $180 contribution limit.
So the next day, the $3,000 appeared in Garcia's campaign finance report as a loan to his campaign from himself.
Mangan and Garcia exchanged emails about this, and Garcia even went to the Helena COPP office on June 12. There, Garcia explained that it was a personal loan that went toward the campaign, rather than a direct campaign contribution. Mangan responded that this was an illegal campaign contribution that had to be returned, documents say.
Montana law includes loans in its definition of campaign contributions. State administrative rules say that loans are subject to the same limits as any campaign contribution. In short, as Mangan said in an email to The Gazette, you're giving to a candidate's campaign when you're giving to the candidate.
Mangan outlined the case on July 31, concluding a campaign violation case filed by Jeff Blatnick, who contributed to the Marquez campaign.
Blatnick's complaint alleged that Garcia filed some late financial reports (which was also upheld). The matter of the loan was brought to Mangan by O'Donnell and Garcia while they checked on the legality of it.
They still disagree on the semantics.
“He borrowed it from me, and then he put it into the campaign hoping to repay himself from campaign contributions from other people,” O'Donnell said.
For her part, Marquez said she was caught off guard by the situation. She said her heart goes out to Garcia's Republican primary opponent, Debbie Rowe, who was outspent before the June vote.
“In the end, she's not the Republican candidate because of that $3,000 loan,” Marquez said.
Garcia said he could have used O'Donnell's loan on anything else, though he said he intended to use it for his campaign. He chalked Mangan's ruling of a campaign finance as a misunderstanding.
As for the $3,000, it's gone. Garcia spent $3,700 on the primary. His latest financial report, which is from June, showed $685 in the campaign fund.
He said he'll pay back the loan using campaign contributions.
“I am very proud. And I didn’t do nothing wrong," Garcia said. "But if they want to think it's wrong, that’s their problem.”
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.