Group Suing State Seeks to Withhold Information About Itself

The Billings-based group wants to prevent the state from enforcing what it calls vague and cumbersome laws

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — A tax-exempt organization challenging Montana’s election laws that regulate political committees has asked a federal appeals court to overrule a judge’s order that it must disclose certain information.

A lawsuit by the Billings-based group seeks to prevent the state from enforcing what it calls vague and cumbersome laws that define campaign contributions, campaign expenditures and political committees. Montanans for Community Development wants to produce issue ads that include the names of certain candidates for office, but it doesn’t want to be labeled a political committee that must disclose its donors and spending.

The group is listed as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization that allows it to keep that information out of the public eye.

Montanans for Community Development is suing Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, who said the laws the group is challenging prevent outside groups from coordinating with candidates and spending money to boost or oppose their campaigns.

In response to the lawsuit, state attorneys representing Motl filed questions and requests for documents about the inner workings of the group, its donors, its spending and what communications it has had with candidates, political groups and other associations.

Montanans for Community Development opposed most of the disclosure requests, saying they were irrelevant to the lawsuit or infringed on the group’s constitutionally protected rights.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ruled last month that the group did not have to answer all of the requests but that it must answer certain questions or produce documents about its formation, operating procedures, advertising, communications with candidates and groups, and other information.

That prompted the group to file a petition to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking it to block Christensen’s order.

Group board members Bill Coate, a one-time gubernatorial candidate, and state Sen. Ed Walker said in statements filed with the court that forcing them to hand over that information could deter future donors and would change how they communicate with donors, candidates and other groups.

Motl said that by suing, Montanans for Community Development had opened the door to inquiries about its operations, records and plans. The commissioner told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the documents he is seeking are essential to defending the case and that the judge’s ruling followed the court’s procedural rules.

“You can’t just walk in and say ‘freedom’ and not explain the basis of your position,” Motl said.

The attorney for Montanans for Community Development, Anita Milanovich, did not return a call seeking comment.

The group’s lawsuit is one of two challenges to Montana’s campaign finance laws. Another that seeks to strike down the state’s campaign donation limits is before U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell for a new hearing that has yet to be scheduled.

Motl’s office also is finalizing rules that would require more groups to report their campaign spending and move most of the disclosure process online. Motl said he anticipates those rules will take effect the first week of December.

“The amount of information the press and public are going to have about who is influencing our elections is going to be significantly greater in 2016 than it was before,” he said.

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