HELENA — Two Washington, D.C.-based advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday accusing a U.S. House candidate in Montana of illegally coordinating with the political action committee he created.
Television advertisements by Special Operations for America PAC that support Ryan Zinke’s House bid include photographs that appear to come from the Republican’s campaign, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 allege in their complaint.
“If so, this is a clear violation of federal law that prohibits super PACS from republishing candidate campaign materials,” said Campaign Legal Center senior counsel Paul Ryan. “This is just another example of the myth of the independence between outside groups like SOFA and the candidates they support.”
Independent expenditure-only committees, or super PACS, such as SOFA PAC are barred from consulting or coordinating with the candidates they support. Republishing campaign materials is considered an in-kind contribution to a candidate, and candidates cannot coordinate with Super PACs to republish campaign materials.
The Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 advocate reducing the influence of money in politics.
Zinke did not respond to a call and email for comment Wednesday. His campaign manager, Robert Kearley, accused the groups of being part of a left-wing campaign to target conservatives.
“The fact that they are now targeting another conservative with a silly and frivolous complaint speaks to the left’s fear that Ryan Zinke is the Republican who will become Montana’s next Congressman, and bring integrity and accountability to our nation’s Capitol,” Kearley said in a statement.
SOFA PAC executive director Gary Stubblefield said in an interview with The Associated Press last month that there are a lot of open-source photographs the group can use in its ads, but he did not know about those in the Zinke ads.
“They probably came from one of those files we have access to,” he said. “They didn’t come from the campaign or candidate.”
The advocacy groups say in their complaint that two SOFA PAC television advertisements contain still photographs of Zinke wearing a blue blazer and a photo of the candidate with his family.
The photos are nearly identical to ones found on the Zinke campaign’s Facebook page, the complaint says.
That strongly suggests the photos were from a professional shoot arranged and paid for by Zinke or his campaign, and that SOFA PAC did not obtain them from the public domain, the groups allege.
In recent years, the Federal Elections Commission has reviewed more than a half-dozen complaints alleging illegal or unreported coordination between super PACS and other political committees and candidates. In most cases, FEC appointees found no wrongdoing or deadlocked on a decision.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, created SOFA PAC in 2012 to support Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, then refocused its mission to back candidates who support the military. Last year, the group raised more than $1.3 million from donors across the nation.
Zinke resigned from SOFA PAC in September, just weeks before announcing his House run. He previously said an attorney reviewed the transition to make sure everything was “squeaky clean.”
Since then, SOFA PAC has spent more than $70,000 to produce and distribute television, radio and Internet ads supporting Zinke’s campaign. He is one of two federal candidates so far the group is supporting with ads.
Ryan previously told the AP it is uncharted territory for a person to hand over control of a PAC to run for office.
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