HELENA—The state political practices commissioner is investigating a complaint alleging that Gov. Steve Bullock’s 2012 campaign illegally coordinated activities with third-party groups that made independent expenditures supporting him through the same consulting firm.
Attorneys for the Bullock campaign and the consulting firm, Hilltop Public Solutions, denied the allegations.
James Pennington, a Billings businessman, filed the complaint in mid-March against the Bullock campaign and the third-party groups.
He said the Bullock campaign — as well as Montana Democratic Party, Montana Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood of Montana and the Montana AFL-CIO and its political action committee, Build Montana — all retained the services and employees of Hilltop Public Solutions, or its affiliates or other vendors. The campaign and third-party groups worked “to coordinate, manage, design and distribute campaign material to influence the results of the 2012 Montana election,” the complaint said.
Pennington said the tens of thousands of dollars independently spent by these groups in support of Bullock should have been reported as contributions to his campaign but they would have far exceeded campaign limits.
“I believe in many instances these violations appear intentional and contrived to circumvent requirements of disclosure laws,” Pennington said. “Consequently, I feel Montana voters were deprived of important and legally required information.”
Bullock narrowly defeated Republican Rick Hill, 49 percent to 47 percent, in the November 2012 election.
Pennington said on at least three “critical times” in the campaign, Bullock or his campaign staff met by telephone with Hilltop agents “supposedly involved in otherwise independent campaigning involving the 2012 governor’s race.” In addition, twice the Bullock campaign reported travel expenses relating to S&B Public Solutions, which uses the registered trade name of Hilltop Public Solutions.
“I feel the only logical conclusion, based on the preceding law and evidence, is that coordination occurred between the governor and supporters during the 2012 election, and that a substantial penalty by your office is warranted,” Pennington told the commissioner.
Attorneys for Hilltop and the Bullock campaign denied Pennington’s coordination charges as false in responses filed with the political practices commissioner.
“Mr. Pennington incorrectly alleges that simply because a gubernatorial campaign and independent organization used a common vendor, Hilltop, to provide various services for them in 2012 that all expenditures made by the independent organizations were coordinated with the gubernatorial campaign,” said James Lamb, a Washington, D.C., lawyer representing Hilltop. “He is wrong.”
Lamb said Hilltop put up “a strict firewall” between its staff providing services to the Bullock campaign and those providing services to the independent groups. This prohibited any flow of material information between the two sides, he said.
“Importantly, no individual provided consulting services for both the gubernatorial campaign and an independent organization,” Lamb said.
The consulting firm provided a copy of its 2012 “firewall policy and rules of engagement,” dated Feb. 1, 2012, with seven specific rules. It listed the three Hilltop employees and consultants assigned to Bullock’s side of the firewall and the one employee (later joined by second) assigned to on the independent expenditure side.
Hilltop Public Solutions is a national political consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., with offices in Billings, Brooklyn, Denver and Portland, Ore. It also has three partner firms: Three Point Media of Washington, which does television, radio and digital adverting; Brushfire Strategies of Brooklyn, which handles campaign phone calls; and Greenlight Media Strategies, also of Brookline, which handles direct mail.
Kevin O’Brien, Bullock’s campaign manager and now deputy chief of staff, said one reason the campaign contracted with Hilltop was because the professionalism of its consulting firm’s staff and its extensive experience with Montana’s campaign finance laws.
O’Brien said he was aware of Hilltop’s firewall policy, adding, “The Bullock campaign relied upon that firewall policy.”
“The Bullock campaign did not share any non-public information about the campaign with any of the independent groups that made independent expenses in support of Gov. Bullock,” O’Brien said.
The campaign’s lawyer, Karl Englund of Missoula, Pennington’s complaint “contains no evidence whatsoever that the Bullock campaign coordinated with any of the organizations that made independent expenditures in support of Gov. Bullock.” Nor did the Bullock campaign discuss confidential campaign strategy or independent expenditures with any of these independent groups, Englund said.
In his complaint, Pennington said, “All persons identified here are obviously politically sophisticated. I believe their acts exemplify a lack of candor from individuals now purporting to champion the cause of campaign finance reform and full public disclosure.”
It was a reference to Bullock, who as governor and previously as attorney general has fought for campaign finance reform and criticized so-called “dark-money groups” that run attack ads funded by anonymous donations.
“I abhor secretive last-minute, calculated and contrived campaigning by anyone seeking to influence my vote without saying who they really are,” Pennington said. “That goes for Democrats as well as Republicans, the left or the right, and anyone in between. It certainly goes for a position as important as the governor’s.”