HELENA — In the six days between a judge tossing out Montana’s campaign contribution limits and an appellate court reinstating them, the Montana Republican Party dumped $500,000 into Rick Hill’s campaign in the former congressman’s tight race for governor.
Hill’s opponent, Democrat Steve Bullock, called Hill’s acceptance of the donation a crime.
The state GOP also donated $32,000 to attorney general candidate Tim Fox in that time, and tried but failed to assemble donors for Sandy Welch, the Republican trying to unseat Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau, said Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the state Republican Party, on Wednesday.
The amounts donated are far above the limits set on contributions from political parties. A candidate for governor, for instance, is limited to accepting a maximum of $22,600 from all political party committees. An individual can only donate up to $630 to a gubernatorial candidate.
But U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ruled on Oct. 3 the limits are unconstitutional, saying they are too low to allow effective campaigning. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated them six days later, but for that period of time the state had no contribution limits, Greenwood said.
“We don’t make the laws here, we just follow them. At the time, that was the law,” Greenwood said. “Supporting pro-jobs candidate is what we do here, so of course we donated to Rick Hill.”
Hill campaign manager Brock Lowrance did not return a call for comment. But he released a statement that showed the campaign had no qualms about accepting the money.
“We’re proud of the fundraising success we have had, and appreciate the generosity of the Montana Republican Party, who just like thousands of Montanans, is committed to electing Rick Hill as our next governor,” said Lowrance said in the statement.
Bullock said his campaign is looking at filing complaints with the commissioner of political practices, which oversees campaign finance reporting for state candidates, and in court with the aim of blocking Hill from using the money before the Nov. 6 election.
Lovell’s ruling only briefly prevented the commissioner from enforcing the campaign contribution limits, and it didn’t give candidates the right to accept such donations, Bullock said. Violation of state election laws is a misdemeanor crime.
“It shows that he’s going to go to any level, including taking illegal contributions, to win the election,” Bullock said of Hill. “This is a serious violation. It’s a $500,000 violation of Montana’s laws. There certainly could be implications beyond the election.”
Bullock said his campaign has not accepted any contributions above the limits.
News of the donations set off a flurry of activity at the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices. Commissioner Jim Murry said he and his staff were meeting with their attorneys to discuss the matter, including whether the candidates can keep the donations.
On Oct. 5, the same day the GOP made its donation to Hill, Murry sent a letter recommending that contributors and candidates abide by the limits until the 9th Circuit made its ruling.
Murry said Wednesday that he can’t take action unless a complaint is filed.
“We’re going to have to wait and see as this plays out,” Murry said. “It would have been better if everyone had followed that recommendation.”
It is unclear whether any, or how many, legislative candidates raised money beyond their contribution limits during that six-day period.
Campaign finance reports for the period from Sept. 6 until Wednesday for candidates for statewide office aren’t due until Monday. But the $500,000 donation to Hill surfaced in a draft report released by his campaign Wednesday in an apparent response to the Bullock campaign’s request to inspect those figures.
Hill’s individual donors amounted to more than $175,000 for the period and included at least eight people who donated more than $630 apiece. Two individuals, Cynthia Huempfner of Bozeman and David Schuett of Dillon, each donated $2,000.
Lowrance said in his statement that Bullock faced only a “straw-man primary opponent” so he could raise more money, and this donation levels the field.
Bullock defeated Heather Margolis of Helena in the June primary with 87 percent of the vote. Hill defeated multiple opponents in a hard-fought primary.
Greenwood disclosed that the state GOP donated to Fox’s campaign. He said the party was not able to assemble the donors to contribute to Welch, “so that didn’t happen.”
Fox spokesman Tyler Matthews said in an email that the party donated $32,000 on Oct. 8. He said the campaign would be looking to the courts for guidance about the donation, and added that Fox would post all his donors online within 24 hours of accepting a contribution.
The GOP donation was among 18 pages of contributors listed on Fox’s website Wednesday.
Fox is facing Democrat Pam Bucy in the campaign to replace Bullock as attorney general.
Greenwood declined to say where the state party received the cash infusion. As of Aug. 31, the most recent date available, the state party had just $64,450.06 in the bank, according to a Federal Election Commission filing.
“The exact source of donations will be available in our next report,” he said.
The next party finance reporting deadline is Oct. 25.
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