Medical marijuana

Kate Cholewa, left, the spokeswoman for the "Yes on 182" campaign, announces the launch of a signature-gathering drive in April in Helena.

Funding for the group backing a pro-medical marijuana ballot measure prompted Safe Montana founder Steve Zabawa to file a campaign complaint.

Safe Montana, which is campaigning against the measure, drafted its complaint Tuesday and sent it to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices.

The complaint, signed by Zabawa, alleges deceptive funding practices and incomplete financial disclosures by the group Montana Citizens for I-182. He also names the incidental committee, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, which is the main funding source for the I-182 campaign.

"The Commissioner should investigate the deceptive dark money reporting practices of both committees to ensure full transparency in the funding of the ballot issue," the complaint stated.

The political practices office is the latest venue in the medical marijuana policy battle, which has been ramping up as Election Day nears. Zabawa released the document a week after Montana Citizens for I-182 filed its own complaint.

Jeff Krauss, treasurer for the I-182 campaign, said that the financial disclosures have been transparent. The group has been campaigning to remove restrictions on the state medical marijuana program.

“We’ve reported every penny donated to or spent on the I-182 campaign,” he said.

While Montana Citizens for I-182 has received individual contributions, the majority of its funding comes from the Montana Cannabis Industry Association. The Montana Citizens group has received $227,500 from the MTCIA since March, according to financial filings.

The MTCIA set up an incidental committee to support the I-182 campaign and hired a consulting firm, M+R Strategic Services, to run it.

Zabawa’s complaint takes issue with how the MTCIA and Montana Citizens for I-182 filed their respective financial documents. Reports show that money flowing out from the MTCIA goes to M+R.

According to the complaint, the expenditures to M+R present ambiguity because it doesn’t name I-182 in its line items and the spending is linked to activities like polling and field staffing.

But MTCIA’s incidental committee was initially registered to support the ballot item. Montana Citizens for I-182 lists those funds as in-kind donations from the MTCIA with the same activity descriptors.

In another portion of the complaint, Zabawa maintains that for the money coming straight from the MTCIA, the donors should be listed. He called the funds “dark money” and “illegal federal drug money,” according to the complaint.

“We believe that the measure should be pulled because of that dark money,” he said. “There’s $227,000 that’s unaccounted.”

By state law, an incidental committee’s main function cannot be a political ballot or candidate. Disclosure of every donor is not required if a business or organization sets up an incidental committee and uses its own revenue to aid a political cause. That organization just has to have other interests.

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MTCIA Vice Chairman Greg Zuckert said that 75 percent of the money they’ve raised over five years has gone toward lawyer fees.

As the MTCIA fought a legal battle over a 2011 law restricting medical marijuana, he said that most of the organization’s money came from providers in Montana.

State law requires the disclosure of incidental committee donors who give specifically to support the political cause. The MTCIA reported $49,752 from individual medical marijuana providers, who are listed by name.

Zuckert said that those donations were earmarked for the I-182 campaign. The rest, he said, comes from the organization’s own general fund, which he said aligns with laws on incidental committees.

Given those disclosures, it would appear that the MTCIA has acted as an incidental committee and not the primary ballot issue committee, as Zabawa alleged.

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said that if the group uses funds from its normal business, they don’t need to be disclosed.

“If what you have here is a medical marijuana-related business contributing money that it made from its business, that’s a true incidental expense,” he said Wednesday.

He added on Wednesday morning that he hadn’t yet seen the allegations in the complaint.

Montana Citizens for I-182 is listed as the primary ballot committee and must disclose its donors. The contributions are listed as in-kind donations from the MTCIA on the I-182 campaign’s financial disclosures. Zabawa called the MTCIA a “shell” primary ballot committee.

Krauss said that this in-kind donation was the proper way to set up the funding and that there should be no ambiguity about where the money comes from.

“You couldn’t read the Montana Cannabis Industry Association and scratch your head and say, ‘What are they about?’” he said.

Zabawa’s complaint also dings the committees for late financial reports, something that was an allegation in the I-182 campaign’s complaint against Safe Montana. Public records back up those claims for both groups.

This new complaint hasn’t yet been added to the docket at the Montana Commissioner of Political Practice’s office. The previous complaint, filed against Safe Montana, is on the docket.

Motl said Wednesday that his office will work on decisions to the complaints promptly with less than six weeks to Election Day.

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