Group Settles Longstanding Donor Complaint

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A conservative group that spent nearly $1.2 million promoting three ballot measures in 2006 has agreed to disclose the source of its funding as part of a settlement in a long-running dispute with the state’s ethics chief.

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth called the settlement reached with Montanans in Action a “ringing endorsement of disclosure.”

More third-party groups have recently been refusing to disclose money sources, leading to more lengthy investigations by Unsworth.

Unsworth told Lee Newspapers State Bureau that settlement documents show that Montanans in Action got nearly all of its money from New York real estate developer Howard Rich. The investigation was launched in 2006 following a complaint from Helena lawyer Jonathan Motl.

The group’s chairman Trevis Butcher said the campaign did nothing wrong and only agreed to settle last Friday because it had tired of the lengthy legal battle. Butcher said it made sense to settle after Unsworth agreed to lower the penalty to $75,000.

“If they’d had a single leg to stand on” the state would have pursued the case in court, Butcher said. “They’re bailing on this one.”

Butcher also blasted Unsworth as a political appointee with an agenda and said the commissioner should be replaced with a bipartisan commission.

Unsworth has issued stern findings against Republicans and Democrats, including Democrat Gov. Brian Schweitzer who appointed him.

Motl, the Helena lawyer who launched the complaint, called Montanans in Action a “cancer on the political system.”

“They had an obligation to come into this state and be open about where the money was coming from and how the money was being spent, and complying with the law on those sources,” Motl said.

Montanans in Action routed $1.2 million to ballot committees that backed a trio of ballot measures that sought to limit state spending, make it easier to recall judges and protect certain property rights.

The measures were eventually removed from the ballot by a state district judge who found that “pervasive fraud” occurred during the signature-gathering process.

Montanans in Action argued it did not need to disclose its funding because it was a social welfare group under federal law and not a political committee.

Unsworth argued that such groups can’t hide behind a tax status to avoid campaign finance law.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.