HELENA — Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney accepted over-the-limit donations from the Democratic Governors Association, including the disputed cost of creating a website that neither the DGA nor Cooney reported as an in-kind donation to his campaign, Montana’s commissioner of political practices found.
Montana law limits direct donations to gubernatorial campaigns from independent campaign committees to $710 per contested election.
Cooney’s campaign reported two $710 donations from the DGA. However, one was actually made by the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association, and the clerical error in campaign filings has been corrected, Ronja Abel, a spokesperson for Cooney’s campaign, said Monday.
Commissioner Jeff Mangan also found that the DGA created a website opposing Cooney’s Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, and did not report the costs of creating the website as an in-kind donation to Cooney’s campaign. Cooney’s campaign also failed to report the contribution, Mangan found.
Because Cooney’s campaign and the DGA ran similar “GregGianforTAX” ads at the same time, Mangan found they coordinated their efforts, and the DGA’s spending on the website should have been reported by Cooney’s campaign and was subject to the $710 limit.
Cooney and the DGA argued it cost less than $35 in fees to set up the greggianfortax.com website so they weren’t required to report the spending. The website is no longer live.
A footnote to the findings said that the website included design work to create the contents, and “it is inconceivable” that the cost would have been less than $35. However, the findings do not include an estimated cost.
The ruling came in complaints filed by Spenser Merwin, the executive director of the Montana Republican Party, and by the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, or FACT.
The Lewis and Clark County attorney declined to prosecute the case, Mangan said Monday, and his office will negotiate a settlement with Cooney’s campaign that likely will include refunding to the DGA the cost of creating the website.
Separately, Mangan dismissed a campaign practices complaint in which Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sandi Luckey alleged Gianforte coordinated campaign activities with Montana First Action in an effort to circumvent campaign donation limits.
Invitations issued for Gianforte fundraisers in July and August said if donors had given the maximum to Gianforte’s campaign they could donate to the political action committee Montana First Action, which “directly benefits Greg’s Governor campaign,” the complaint said.
However, Mangan did not find any expenditures for the fundraisers that were made by Montana First Action, nor expenditures by Montana First Action on behalf of Gianforte.
“There is a lack of sufficient facts to support a determination that the Gianforte campaign and Montana First Action coordinated reportable election activity,” Mangan wrote.
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