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Knudsen calls laws ‘ridiculous’ and says he got opponent to run so he could raise more $

by By DARRELL EHRLICK Daily Montanan
| May 24, 2024 7:00 AM

At a Saturday night campaign event billed as a “conservative cookout,” Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen told a crowd that he had put a friend and fellow Republican up to running against him in his bid for re-election in order to raise more money and because he believes state law is “ridiculous,” according to a recording that captured part of his remarks and was obtained by the Daily Montanan.

Knudsen was speaking to a gathering of Republican candidates in Dillon that was put on by Marsha Kery, a citizen of Beaverhead County, according to a local advertisement. Others who were invited to the event included Shannon Maness, a Dillon-area House candidate and Sen. Theresa Manzella, from Hamilton.

Knudsen told the crowd:

“I do technically have a primary. However, he is a young man who I asked to run against me, because our campaign laws are ridiculous. So, he’s a young man from my part of the state. His name is Logan Olson. He’s not running. He filed to run against me simply because under our current campaign finance laws in Montana, it allows me to raise more money. So, he supports me and he’s going to vote for me [audience laughs].

“He literally did it because I asked him to [some clapping in the audience]. He’s a good kid. I shouldn’t say kid; he’s a young lawyer up in Plentywood, a good young man. But technically I have a primary opponent, I think we’re going to be OK in that one.”

But those remarks may have given audience members more than information about the race for the top law enforcement officer in the state. They may have provided the basis for several campaign violations.

As of Tuesday afternoon, no one had lodged a complaint against Knudsen with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, the top campaign enforcement officer with the state. And Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus is prohibited from speaking about specifics of a pending case.

But the office confirmed on Tuesday that it could be a violation of Montana law for one person to recruit another to run for office for the purpose of raising more campaign funding. Montana law also prohibits trying to stop candidates from running for office, or encouraging them to run for office for a personal gain.

Olson is currently the Daniels County Attorney and a 2020 graduate of the University of Montana Law School, according to a voters guide published in the Montana Free Press.

“Olson doesn’t appear to be actively running a campaign against Knudsen. He has no campaign website, has reported no fundraising, and the individual his campaign hired for campaign finance compliance work is the same as Knudsen’s,” the Free Press reported.

Neither Knudsen’s campaign nor Olson’s campaign responded when contacted on Tuesday.

Montana law has several provisions that could apply to false campaigns, including a portion of the law addressing deceptive elections. That portion of Montana law (13-35-207) prohibits falsely filing for office or making a false oath or affidavit, which are often required for candidates running for office.

Another portion of the law (13-35-221) prohibits one candidate from either enticing or threatening other candidates not to run in an election.

And yet another portion of state law (13-37-216) places limits on how much people can contribute. That portion of state law, Gallus said, changes depending on whether a candidate has a primary challenger.

Gallus said while candidates may try to avoid enforcement of the campaign laws by trying to skirt the letter of the law, state lawmakers have also given the commissioner power to go after candidates who are purposefully dodging the law. Gallus said it dates back to a 2007 decision in which the mayor of Billings, Ron Tussing, asked supporters at an event to contribute cash when he “passed around the hat.” In an email to supporters, Tussing urged, “people who have maxed out on checks, but still wish to do more, may put cash in the hat at the fundraiser.”

Gallus said this serves as an example of taking something legal, like campaign contributions, and subverting it. In this case, cash contributions up to $25 can be undocumented, but any amount more than that requires documentation that includes a name, address, occupation and employer. Furthermore, Gallus said in the case of Tussing, if his supporters had already reached their maximum, he shouldn’t have been able to encourage them to give more essentially anonymously.

“You can’t intentionally circumvent the law to avoid campaign contribution limits,” Gallus said.

Knudsen is also facing several other political challenges as he seeks a second term as the Attorney General.

Knudsen faces 41 ethics charges that are now pending before the state’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which has submitted the finding to the Montana Supreme Court, the arbiter of discipline within the state bar.

Knudsen also has been at the helm of the Montana Highway Patrol, part of the Montana Department of Justice, and received harsh criticism for the leadership of the department, and many of the employees said in the staff morale survey that they do not like the way the department is operating.

Despite Knudsen’s criticism of Montana’s campaign finance laws, he appears to have had ample opportunity to change those laws. He was one of the longest and more powerful legislators, being elected to the Montana House in 2011, and serving as Speaker of the House from 2015 to 2019.

Prior to that, he also served as the Roosevelt County Attorney.