HELENA — A deputy attorney general will no longer be defending the state in a Republican challenge to the state’s open primary elections after the party accused him of misconduct.
Republican Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion filed a motion Friday to withdraw as counsel from the case.
“I submit this notice of withdrawal in order to prevent future misunderstandings with the Montana Republican Party and to facilitate future communications,” Bennion said in court documents.
Two other attorneys from Attorney General Tim Fox’s office will continue to defend the state in the case calling for primaries in which voters can only cast ballots for candidates in their own party.
Earlier this month, the GOP asked for Bennion’s removal claiming he violated a code of conduct. They say he called GOP executive director Chris Shipp asking about matters related to the case without first notifying the party’s attorney.
Specifically they said Bennion asked how the party generates voter mailing lists and identifies members.
Fox spokesman John Barnes said previously that Bennion regularly speaks with members of the Republican Party and the conversation included no mention of the lawsuit.
Ten Republican Central Committees also involved in the case have filed a separate but similar complaint through Republican lawmaker and Bozeman attorney Matthew Monforton, who filed the lawsuit over primary elections in U.S. District Court in 2014.
The committees are still seeking a hearing in order to get any documents related to the phone call so they aren’t blindsided, Monforton said, and to find out if anyone else from the office was involved.
“We don’t want this matter slipped under the rug,” Monforton said.
Their motion also accuses the attorney general’s office of further misconduct, saying a letter sent by his office to the Republican party seeking an informal way to resolve the conflict was an attempt to block the court from looking into it.
Barnes declined to comment Monday morning but said his office will file a formal response to the committees’ allegations this week.
The lawsuit over primary elections includes the 10 Republican Central Committees and the state Republican party. It asks a federal judge to strike down as unconstitutional Montana laws allowing registered voters to participate in any party primary.
Republicans have said closed primaries are needed because people not in their party have been voting in GOP primaries and influencing election outcomes.
Democratic Secretary of State Linda McCulloch supports open primaries and has said that closing them would leave unaffiliated voters out of the primary elections process.
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