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Montana conservatives broke rules, ethics official contends

by Matt Gouras
| July 12, 2013 3:23 PM

HELENA — The new state commissioner of political practices issued a tough and detailed decision Wednesday as he starts handling complaints over the way outside groups avoid disclosure of political spending.

Jonathan Motl ruled that the Montana Conservative Coalition did not disclose spending on an attack mailer against former state Rep. Gary MacLaren of Victor in a 2012 Republican state Senate primary.

MacLaren was defeated by fellow Republican Fred Thomas of Stevensville, who was favored by self-described conservatives. It was one of many battles where conservative groups worked to gain control of the Republican Party through primary elections, a trend expected to continue through next year.

Motl said the disclosure laws are important to ensure fair elections. He said clarity is needed to guide candidates and groups on the thorny issue of outside spending that has led to contentious court battles in Montana and all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The MacLaren complaint demonstrates the recurring issue of independent committee expenditures, Motl said referencing a dozen pending complaints. He noted that the courts have ruled that some bans on spending are unconstitutional restrictions of free speech, but he said the groups still need to follow disclosure laws that have been left in place.

“Others, however, see it differently as they wish to make such independent campaign expenditures but avoid reporting and disclosure,” Motl said in the 25-page summary. “This clash of approaches has led to the complaints, including the MacLaren complaint concerning instances of unreported and undisclosed independent expenditure activity.”

Motl said glossy mailers the coalition sent out urging a vote for Thomas were sent just before the June primary. But the group did not disclose the spending, $1,650, or its source as required. Also, the flyer did not explicitly say who paid for it.

He said the group also filed late reports on spending in the November general election of a Lewis and Clark County Commission candidate. And in some cases, he said, the group didn’t identify the races in which it was engaged.

Motl said the findings will be forwarded to the county prosecutor, as required. But he expects the issue to be returned, as most cases are, for him to handle. The commissioner could then negotiate a fine, or bring the matter to state district court if it is contested. 

But Motl said the coalition is an experienced group that should know the disclosure laws, and he does not expect to reduce any potential fines.

“This commissioner intends to enforce this violation to the full extent of the law,” Motl said.

Jake Eaton, a Republican consultant attached to the group, said there was no intent to hide the money.

“The commissioner is making a mountain out of molehill by trying to turn what is obviously a clerical error into something sinister,” Eaton said.

The commissioner did not find any wrongdoing by state Sen. Fred Thomas, who was not found to have coordinated with the coalition.

“Having not been involved in it, because I don’t have any real direct knowledge of it because I can’t, I of course want any and all of us to adhere to the laws and properly report these things,” Thomas said.