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State's top political cop says groups broke finance laws in qualifying Greens

State's top political cop says groups broke finance laws in qualifying Greens

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Voters drop off their ballots Tuesday outside the City-County Building in Helena.

Voters drop off their ballots Tuesday outside the City-County Building in Helena.

The Montana Republican Party, Montanans for Conservation and Club for Growth Action violated the state's campaign finance laws in an effort to qualify the Green Party for the ballot this year, according to a decision signed by the state Commissioner of Political Practices on Friday.

The decision is related to a signature-gathering effort financed by the Montana GOP.

The Montana Democratic Party filed a campaign finance complaint with the commissioner, who is tasked with investigating alleged violations of the state's campaign finance laws, back in March.

The original complaint asked the commissioner to determined who paid an organization called Advanced Micro Targeting, which hired petitioners to gather signatures in cities around the state. That effort was successful, and the Secretary of State qualified the Montana Green party for the ballot March 6.

The state Green Party has repeatedly said it was not involved in the efforts to get on the ballot. It has also said some of the candidates running under the party's banner this election have not communicated with the party.

Green Party candidates can be seen as drawing votes away from Democrats, while Libertarian candidates, who are already qualified for the ballot, can draw votes from Republicans.

Commissioner Jeff Mangan dismissed the complaint against AMT, saying they were just a hired vendor. But Mangan had latitude under the complaint to investigate the other groups.

The Montana Republican Party paid AMT $100,000 to collect signatures and reported that as an in-kind donation to Montanans for Conservation. But Mangan found that the state GOP did not accurately report the date and distribution of that money.

Montana GOP executive director Spenser Merwin said Friday the party "fundamentally disagrees" with the commissioner's findings.

"The MT GOP disclosed all of our expenditures during the reporting periods by the required deadlines and followed the letter of the law," Merwin said in a statement. "After years of the Montana Democratic Party actively working to suppress Green Party voices, we thought it was time to give voters another choice at the ballot box. Plain and simple, the Montana Democratic Party is now filing wild complaints and lawsuits to keep suppressing the Green Party voice in our elections.”

The Republican party in January 2020 reported to the Federal Election Commission that it spent $50,000 with AMT on Jan. 21. It then reported on a March 30 state campaign finance report an expenditure to AMT for $100,000 that was made on Feb. 20, as well as an in-kind contribution to $100,00 to Montanans for Conservation on the same day.

Mangan told the Associated Press on Friday this was a "technical violation" for failing to accurately report the date and distribution of the money. While the Montana media and Mangan were both seeking to find who paid AMT through late February and March, the Montana GOP did not disclose that it did until March 24.

The Montana Democratic Party fired back Friday.

“The MT GOP tried to mask their election meddling by skirting Montana campaign finance law, but got caught red-handed," executive director Sandi Luckey said in a statement. "Now, they are being held accountable for their shameful attempts to mislead Montanans and meddle with our elections. The Montana Democratic Party will always stand up for the integrity of our elections. It’s a shame that the MT GOP can’t say the same.”

Mangan also found that Montanans for Conservation failed to timely register as a minor party qualification committee. It initially registered as an independent political committee and filed an amended report changing to a minor party qualification committee March 23, after the Green Party was on the ballot.

A GOP operative at that time said the group was unable to initially properly register because an online drop-down menu didn't list a minor party qualification committee as an option, though Mangan said in his decision the committee did not request to be reclassified when it reported the $100,000 contribution from the Montana Republican Party on Feb. 20.

In 2019 lawmakers passed a law that required groups spending or receiving at least $500 to qualify a minor party for the ballot to register as a minor party qualification committee and file periodic finance reports.

Finally, Mangan found that Club For Growth, which ended up not submitting any signatures to qualify the Green Party after initially registering to, also did not file timely finance reports. A spokesperson for that group on Friday acknowledged "it was filed 44 days late" and had no further comment.

This is the second time in as many years that the Green Party qualified for the ballot, though in 2018, a Helena judge ended up disqualifying the party after calling into question the validity of some of petition signatures. Like this year, the Green Party said it had nothing to do with the 2018 effort.

This year the party is on the ballot, though the Montana Democratic Party has again filed a lawsuit asking to remove it, saying that enough people have asked that their signatures be withdrawn from qualification petitions that they no longer meet the threshold. That case is pending in Helena District Court.

The Associated Press reported Friday that Mangan said the violations would likely be settled by the groups paying fines.

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