Session Brawl Over Guns Extends to Lobby Complaint

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Two adversaries who duked it out repeatedly over gun legislation during the session are now continuing their disagreement over an ethics complaint before the state Commissioner of Political Practices.

Helena Mayor Jim Smith, who is also a lobbyist for law enforcement groups, has filed a complaint alleging that Gary Marbut of the Montana Shooting Sports Association improperly failed to register as a lobbyist.

“I’ve been fighting with Gary for 10 or 12 years and I always just thought ‘well, he’s a worthy adversary,’ so I was shocked to discover he wasn’t registered as a lobbyist,” Smith said.

Marbut and Smith fought on opposite sides of a number of controversial bills during the session, including the “castle doctrine” measure that allows people to use a gun in self-defense without first fleeing. That bill was sponsored by Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel. But Marbut played a large role in its drafting and passage, rallying support through e-mail campaigns and among lawmakers.

Marbut also worked closely with Rep. Joel Boniek, R-Livingston, for passage of House Bill 246, which declares Montana-made guns exempt from federal regulation.

“We would expect that someone behind one of the most significant bills this session would be registered,” state Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth said, referring to the self-defense measure.

Under state rules, anyone who spends more than $2,400 trying to influence lawmakers must register as a lobbyist with the commissioner. Transportation, lodging and other personal expenses do not apply to the tally. But any money spent on lobbying a legislator or the Legislature must be counted toward the threshold.

Marbut, who runs the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said he volunteers his time crusading for gun freedoms and that Smith is trying to use the power of government to harass him for expressing his political views.

“I didn’t get paid for it and that doesn’t meet the definition of lobbying in the state of Montana,” Marbut said.

Marbut’s political activities have come under scrutiny before. In April 2008, the Office of Political Practices issued an order demanding Marbut register his political action committee with the state as required by law. After he refused to do so over a disagreement about the law’s requirements, the office then disbanded his committee.

Unsworth said investigating the recent complaint, which was accompanied by a complaint against the National Rifle Association, will likely take six to eight months on an expedited timeline. That compares to a usual length of 18 months.

Investigating ethics complaints is a slow process, Unsworth said, because the office has a backlog of cases and only one full-time investigator, who was brought aboard in 2008.

“It’s a skeleton crew and it’s too bad,” said Smith, who lobbies for the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association through the firm Smith and McGowan, Inc.

The flexibility of the state’s lobbyist registration guidelines met with some criticism during the session as well. Then, advocates of a bill dealing with seed patents railed against the agribusiness giant Monsanto for joining a committee considering the bill at a private dinner, rather than testifying during a hearing. Since neither Monsanto nor the group that paid for the dinner, Growers for Biotechnology, were known to hit the $2,400 spending mark, state law did not require them to register as lobbyists.

Even when a group is registered, Unsworth said, state rules allow for wide interpretation. For example, some only count the time they are actually in front of a legislator as lobbying, while others include all of their time at the Capitol in spending reports, he said.

Still, he does not expect the Legislature of a state where lobbying was unregulated until as late as 1980 to clarify the rules any time soon.

“Based on the history of Montana, it appears it will have to be changed by a citizens group,” Unsworth said.

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