CSKT Accused of Unethical Lobbying

Complaint says tribes using ‘dark money’ to urge support of controversial water rights compact

By Tristan Scott

A formal complaint filed with the state Commissioner of Political Practices accuses the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of unfair and unethical lobbying practices by using so-called “dark money” to promote passage of a controversial water rights compact.

The complaint, filed by Jayson Peters, chairman of the Flathead County Republican Central Committee, names CSKT, public affairs firm Mercury LLC, registered lobbyists Mark Baker and Shelby DeMars, and the pro-compact group Farmers and Ranchers for Montana (FARM), which the complaint identifies as a “grassroots lobbying group working on the tribes’ behalf.

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said he received the complaint April 3 and will respond to it within five days.

According to Motl, the alleged rules violation falls in a “gray area” surrounding the regulation of grassroots lobbying efforts, which he said deserves further clarification through a rules change.

“We don’t have very much clarity in our lobbying rules or definition of what constitutes lobbying in our statute,” Motl said. “It’s a serious issue, and it’s a lot bigger than one principle and one group. It’s an issue a substantial number of groups are dealing with and it is one that may need further clarification.”

The complaint argues that FARM has “chosen to use dark money and skirt Montana lobbying laws to hide the full amount of funds to lobby the Montana Legislature and other elected officials.”

“This is a breach of the public trust and open government,” the complaint states.

According to rules governing lobbying in Montana, lobbyists must register with the state if they engage in face-to-face discussion with legislators and disclose the in-kind value, or cash-value, of their contributions.

The same rules don’t apply to so-called “grassroots” groups who make contributions that are less quantifiable – for example, by urging constituents in a lawmakers’ legislative district to contact the lawmaker and urge him or her to vote a certain way.

“It’s still a campaign contribution, but it has been construed as a gray area and in general it is not being reported,” Motl said. “So Mr. Peters justifiably believes there is a lot of influence going on with this particular bill that is not happening at the Capitol in Helena but that is clearly influencing whether the bill is going to become law. And his assertion is that it constitutes lobbying.”

Motl drew comparisons to recent local efforts by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity-Montana to target Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, because the freshman lawmaker refused to sign a blanket pledge opposing Medicaid expansion in Montana.

AFP-Montana is a branch of the conservative organization founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, David and Charles, who own Koch Industries, of Wichita, Kansas, a prominent opponent of Medicaid expansion.

Last summer, the group ramped up its presence in Montana, expanding from two to 11 paid staffers, according to the group.

AFP’s efforts could also be construed as lobbying, yet they have not disclosed it or registered, Motl said.

“There is more money in politics these days than ever before, and it is certainly an area of legitimate concern to Montanans,” Motl said. “So we will have to deal with it. Whether that happens entirely through Mr. Peters’ complaint or whether we have to take a look at new rule making I don’t yet know.”

The compact gives the tribes “in-stream flow” rights to several streams and rivers off the reservation, linked to 1855 treaty rights that say the tribes can fish on traditional areas.

Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, the sponsor of the bill, said people may disagree with the tribes’ rights to water off the reservation, but that past court rulings have upheld these rights for other tribes under similar treaties.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.