HELENA — An organization that has spent $268,000 to influence a Montana Supreme Court election doesn’t need to register as a political committee with the state, an attorney for the group said in a letter to Montana’s commissioner of political practices Wednesday.
The letter by Republican State Leadership Committee attorney Trevor Stanley was in response to Commissioner Jonathan Motl’s order to register and disclose its spending that went to an organization that produced a website and ads questioning District Judge Dirk Sandefur’s toughness on crime.
Sandefur and University of Montana adjunct law professor Kristen Juras are competing for an open seat on the state’s high court. The nonpartisan race has drawn considerable outside interest and money, not just from the Republican State Leadership Committee, but from Sandefur backers such as the Montana Democratic Party and the Montana Trial Lawyers Association.
After the executive director of the trial lawyers association filed a complaint against the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative, Motl found the group broke state law by failing to register as a political committee and failing to file campaign finance disclosures.
The Judicial Fairness Initiative is a separate organization under the Republican State Leadership Committee that seeks to elect conservative judges.
Motl gave the organization until 3 p.m. Wednesday to register and file all of the required financial disclosures. Shortly before the deadline, Stanley submitted his letter and more than 300 pages of financial disclosures made to the IRS of donors to and spending by both the main Republican State Leadership Committee and the Judicial Fairness Initiative.
“In the spirit of full disclosure and in an effort to respond as completely as possible to your request, we are now reporting more information than is required by the Montana Code,” Stanley wrote.
However, he added, the Judicial Fairness Initiative should be considered an out-of-state committee required only to provide copies of disclosures filed with the IRS. It should not have to separately register as an independent political committee in the state of Montana, Stanley wrote.
The attorney also criticized Motl for the ruling that the organization broke state law. “Your unilateral decision to investigate, make a determination of unlawful campaign practice and issue a press release without any reasonable due process is shocking,” Stanley wrote.
Motl responded to Stanley by saying the Judicial Fairness Initiative must still file as an independent political committee, and he extended the deadline until Thursday to do so.
Out-of-state committees must comply Montana regulations governing the timing of reports and the detail that they provide, and the federal filings submitted Wednesday don’t do that, Motl told The Associated Press.
The IRS disclosures only show $93,000 of the $268,000 given to the anti-Sandefur organization called Stop Set ‘Em Free Sandefur.
Motl said he is hopeful the organization will comply because its leaders appear to be sensitive to their public image.
“If they don’t, we won’t quit,” Motl said. “We’re not going to go away on this issue.”
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