HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Republican Party and two minor party qualification committees violated state campaign finance laws in a successful effort to qualify the Green Party of Montana for the primary ballot without the Green Party's knowledge, the commissioner of political practices said Friday.
The Montana GOP has acknowledged paying Advanced Micro Targeting $100,000 to gather signatures to certify the Green Party for the ballot. The money was also listed as an in-kind contribution to a group called Montanans for Conservation, which didn't register as a minor party qualifying committee until after the Green Party was certified for the ballot on March 6.
The 2019 Legislature passed a law requiring groups to report any spending for paid signature gatherers to qualify issues or parties for Montana's ballots to ensure transparency after an unknown entity paid signature gatherers to qualify the Green Party of Montana for the 2018 ballot.
Advanced Micro Targeting employees gathered signatures in major Montana cities in January and February. At the time, Club For Growth Action was registered as a minor party qualifying committee, but it said it had abandoned its efforts to gather signatures to qualify the Green Party for the ballot because someone else was doing it. No other minor party qualifying committees were registered with the commissioner of political practices at the time.
“It was all but transparent during that period of time, which is unfortunate,” Commissioner Jeff Mangan said Friday.
The Republican Party failed to accurately report its $100,000 expenditure to Advanced Micro Targeting on its March 30 committee finance report, Mangan found, calling it a technical violation. The Republican Party had acknowledged paying for the signature gathering on March 24.
Montanans for Conservation violated campaign laws by delaying its filing as a minor party qualification committee, Mangan found.
Montana Republican Party Executive Director Spenser Merwin said party officials properly disclosed their expenditures and followed the law.
“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," Merwin said. "Plain and simple, the Montana Democratic Party is now filing wild complaints and lawsuits to keep suppressing the Green Party voice in our elections.”
Officials with Montanans for Conservation did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Club for Growth Action was 44 days late with its campaign finance report, which included a $117,500 payment to Stampede Consulting LLC for signature gathering and a refund of $102,000 from Stampede, apparently after it abandoned its signature-gathering plans. Joe Kildea with Club for Growth Action declined to comment on the violation.
The findings followed a complaint filed by Sandi Luckey, the executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, against Advanced Micro Targeting. Luckey said Advanced Micro Targeting did not properly file as a minor party qualification committee.
Mangan dismissed the complaint against Advanced Micro Targeting, saying the company was just a vendor. However, once a complaint is filed, the commissioner has the authority to investigate any other alleged violation.
The Montana GOP “tried to mask their election meddling by skirting Montana campaign finance law, but got caught red-handed," Luckey said in a statement. “Now, they are being held accountable for their shameful attempts to mislead Montanans and meddle with our elections.”
Mangan reported his findings to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney's Office, and the county attorney declined to prosecute, he said Friday.
The violations will likely be settled with fines being paid, he said.