Judge Won’t Grant Hill Immunity Over Campaign Donation

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — A judge won’t grant former Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill immunity from a possible state investigation into a $500,000 campaign donation, ruling that any potential threat to Hill is too speculative and remote to allow the former congressman to seek such protection.

Hill, who lost the 2012 election to then-Attorney General Steve Bullock, had asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Strong to rule that he cannot be subjected to an investigation into accepting the donation last October from the Montana Republican Party.

The state GOP donated the money to Hill’s campaign after a judge ruled the state’s donation limits — $22,600 by a political party to a candidate — were unconstitutional. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated those limits while the case was being appealed, but Hill did not return the donation.

Bullock campaign manager Kevin O’Brien filed a complaint with the state commissioner of political practices.

That appeal of the constitutionality of the state’s campaign donation limits and the commissioner’s investigation into Hill’s donation both have been delayed while the U.S. Supreme Court considers another case with similar issues.

Hill argued the threat of an investigation by the state commissioner discourages him from giving the $300,000 left from his failed campaign to the state GOP for the 2014 elections, effectively chilling his First Amendment right to free speech.

Strong ruled in an order released Friday that the potential threat against Hill does not qualify as an injury against which he can seek protection from the court.

There is no connection between a potential state investigation and what Hill chooses to do with the money it has on hand, Strong wrote. His choice in using that leftover money is a business decision, not a legal one, and no law is chilling Hill’s free speech, he wrote.

“By Hill’s logic, any fine — including parking tickets — would implicate the First Amendment if the defendant could plausibly assert a wish to spend money on expressive conduct,” the judge wrote.

Hill attorney Matthew Monforton said Monday that he will appeal the decision and ask the 9th Circuit to consolidate the case with the one challenging Montana’s contribution limits.

Monforton said he is confident Hill will be vindicated, but “we are disappointed we will have to wait a couple of years for the appellate court to finalize this matter.”

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