HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock’s former campaign is rebutting allegations from a Billings businessman that the campaign illegally coordinated activities with third-party groups.
James Pennington filed the complaint in mid-March saying the campaign and several groups wrongly coordinated activities through political vendor Hilltop Public Solutions.
The complaint relies on financial disclosure filings with the commissioner of political practice showing campaign staffers spoke with Hilltop agents that were “supposedly involved in otherwise independent campaigning.”
It is illegal for candidates to coordinate spending with third-party groups. It is seen as a potential way to circumvent campaign contribution limits.
Lee Newspapers of Montana reports that attorneys for Hilltop and the Bullock campaign deny Pennington’s charges. They argue the campaign simply was using the same vendor that was providing services to many Democratic-aligned third-party groups.
“Mr. Pennington incorrectly alleges that simply because a gubernatorial campaign and independent organization used a common vendor, Hilltop, to provide various services for them in 2012 that all expenditures made by the independent organizations were coordinated with the gubernatorial campaign,” said James Lamb, a Washington, D.C., lawyer representing Hilltop. “He is wrong.”
Lamb said Hilltop put up “a strict firewall” between its staff providing services to the Bullock campaign and those providing services to the independent groups. The ensured that material was not shared between the groups not allowed to coordinate expenditures, he said.
The Montana commissioner of political practices is investigating the complaint.
Pennington said he believes the combined expenditures involving groups like the Montana Democratic Party, Montana Conservation Voters, and Planned Parenthood of Montana coordinated expenditures.
“I believe in many instances these violations appear intentional and contrived to circumvent requirements of disclosure laws,” Pennington said. “Consequently, I feel Montana voters were deprived of important and legally required information.”
Bullock narrowly defeated Republican Rick Hill, 49 percent to 47 percent, in the November 2012 election.
Kevin O’Brien, Bullock’s campaign manager and now deputy chief of staff, said Hilltop is a professional consulting firm with extensive experience with Montana’s campaign finance laws. The campaign relied on the firm’s firewall policy.
“The Bullock campaign did not share any non-public information about the campaign with any of the independent groups that made independent expenses in support of Gov. Bullock,” O’Brien said.
The campaign’s lawyer said the complaint contains no evidence of coordination.
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