HELENA — Montana’s commissioner of political practice said Wednesday that he found evidence of so-called dark money groups illegally coordinating spending with at least one candidate.
Jonathan Motl warned potential 2014 candidates to not accept aid from third-party groups without paying for and disclosing the help. Penalties, under state law, could include fines — and even removal from office or future ballots. The cases shed more light on angry disputes over anonymous spending in Montana races that has fractured the Republican legislative caucus, led to a number of legal battles over state laws and attracted the attention of a federal grand jury.
Motl released five decisions siding with a former Republican House candidate in Billings, Debra Bonogofsky. She alleged former state Rep. Dan Kennedy, also a Republican, coordinated mailers in 2010 to avoid campaign finance laws.
The commissioner said the investigation will now expand to other 2010 and 2012 legislative candidates, because one Bonogofsky complaint widely sought relief on behalf of all other candidates who were unfairly targeted by unreported spending.
“Candidates run with the expectation that they will not be bushwhacked by late, undisclosed and unreported expenditures,” Motl wrote.
Motl said he found that the conservative political group Western Tradition Partnership contributed “unreported, undisclosed” activity in support of Kennedy. WTP, now American Tradition Partnership, gained notoriety for challenging state campaign finance laws.
The group did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The case will now move to the county attorney, who will likely send it back to the commissioner for prosecution.
Kennedy, who won the 2010 primary battle against Bonogofsky by about 200 votes, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. He has previously denied any wrongdoing.
Motl’s decision also criticizes Campaign Treasurer Corey Stapleton of Billings for failing to keep required records. Stapleton, now running for the U.S. House seat, said in an e-mail that he only agreed to be the treasurer if Kennedy delegated the administrative tasks to a deputy.
The decision says both “face potentially significant enforcement consequences” including ineligibility to be on the ballot in 2014 or to hold state office.
Bonogofsky, the former candidate who filed the complaint, said she was “ecstatic” with the result.
“These guys act like they have no responsibility. Maybe this will give them second thought in terms of what they are doing,” she said.
Motl said that coordinated help from a third-party group is the same as a campaign contribution that faces strict limits and must be disclosed. The expensive third-party direct mail attacks would have exceeded those limits, even if it had been reported.
Motl said he relied, in part, on disputed Western Tradition Partnership documents that the group says were stolen. The group was trying to get them back, but a federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Montana commissioner of political practices did nothing wrong in receiving them and letting others view them.
The thousands of pages of documents include campaign materials for various candidates in Montana and Colorado, and are not held by the FBI.
Motl also found that the National Gun Owners Alliance engaged in mailers in the race without disclosing its campaign spending as is required, but he did not find that group had illegally coordinated with the candidate.
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