Knudsen Camp Calls for Dismissal of Political Practices Complaint

Attorney general’s adviser calls allegation ‘semi-coherent ramblings’ that fail to allege a specific violation of a law

By Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Montana Free Press

The re-election campaign of Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen this week called for the dismissal of a recent political practices complaint that alleged Knudsen recruited his primary opponent in order to skirt campaign finance law. 

Jake Eaton, a Billings-based political consultant advising Knudsen’s campaign, derided the complaint in a letter to Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus as “semi-coherent ramblings” that fail to allege specific violation of a law. As such, Eaton said, the complaint should be dismissed. 

The complaint was filed by the Montana Democratic Party last week
after the Daily Montanan published a recording in which Knudsen told supporters that he’d recruited his primary challenger, Daniels County Attorney Logan Olson, to help him circumvent a campaign finance law that in theory prevents candidates in uncontested primaries from accepting more than a set amount of money from a given donor.

“I do technically have a primary,” Knudsen told supporters at the event, according to the recording. “However, he is a young man who I asked to run against me, and that’s because our campaign laws are ridiculous.”

Eaton’s letter to the COPP did not address the recording. 

At the center of the dispute is Montana campaign law that allows donors to contribute a maximum amount to a campaign in both the primary and general elections so long as the candidate has a contested primary. That means a candidate with a primary challenger is allowed to raise twice as much money as a candidate without one. It’s not uncommon for a relatively unknown candidate to challenge a high-profile politician in the primary election and then never spend a cent on their own campaign — a dynamic that at least creates the appearance that they entered the race to help the higher-profile candidate raise funds. 

The Democrats’ complaints — one filed against Knudsen and one against Olson — don’t take issue with that arrangement. They do, though, highlight the fact that Olson didn’t file to run against Knudsen until March, while Knudsen had already been raising money as if his cap were doubled for months before that.   

Eaton’s objections to the complaint are largely procedural. State administrative rules, he notes, require campaign finance complaints to include “a detailed description of the alleged violation, including citation to each statute and/or rule that is alleged to have been violated.”

The Democrats’ complaints fail to meet that threshold, he said. 

“This requirement is important as a matter of due process because respondents to a campaign finance complaint have a right to know the allegations against them in order to be able to formulate a meaningful response and defense to these allegations,” Eaton wrote in his letter to Gallus.

To the extent that the complaints allege a specific wrongdoing — that Knudsen collected unallowable excess campaign donations before he had a primary challenger — the complainants ask that “for the first time ever in the history of Montana that [statute] somehow be interpreted to mean that campaigns cannot accept Primary and General Election contributions until they have a contested primary opponent that has filed with the Secretary of State,” Eaton wrote.

“That argument is, of course, absurd on its face and has no rational basis within the actual text of the statute,” he continued. “The longstanding interpretation and practice has been for campaigns to collect

contributions for the primary and general and simply return the funds if no contested primary occurs.”

He added that Knudsen’s likely general election opponent, Ben Alke, and other Democrats have also collected primary and general election contributions without a primary opponent. Alke has received a $100 general election donation from a contributor who also gave a similar sum to Alke’s primary election fund. Speaking to reporters during a press conference this week, Alke said that his campaign will refund improper donations “in due course.” 

“At times, some people unknowingly give you more money than is allowed,” he said. 

Alke said Knudsen’s statement in the recording is “a confession that he has violated campaign finance laws” and called on Knudsen to return any excess funds.

The COPP is not required to investigate a complaint if the office determines it to be “frivolous on its face, illegible, too indefinite, does not identify the alleged violator, does not cite the statute or rule that is alleged to have been violated” or if it “does not contain sufficient allegations to enable the commissioner to determine that it states a potential violation of a statute or rule within the commissioner’s jurisdiction,” according to state administrative rule. The fact that the commissioner’s office has accepted the complaint suggests, at least, that there are no significant technical or jurisdictional issues with the complaint itself.

Olson has yet to respond to the complaint addressed to him. 

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.