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COPP: Montana Republicans Violated Campaign Finance Laws in 2016

Commissioner Mangan: “The citizens of the State of Montana did not have access to complete and accurate MRLCC campaign finance data prior to election day.”

COPP Orders Official Review of MRLCC’s “Firewall” Policy, Which Prevents Illegal Coordination of Independent Expenditures

Fourth Time Montana Republicans Have Been Caught Using Dark Money In Violation of Campaign Finance Laws in 2016

Helena – Today, Jeffrey Mangan, the Commissioner of Political Practices of the State of Montana (COPP), announced that the Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee (MRLCC) violated campaign finance laws for using undisclosed dark money to fund campaign expenditures during the 2016 election cycle. 

Montana Republicans failed to sufficiently describe or disclose specific contributions and filed incorrect and incomplete campaign finance reports for expenditures made on behalf of its legislative candidates in 2016. The MRLCC will be required to submit a copy of its “firewall” policy in order to allow the COPP to review the steps and methods taken by the Committee to ensure there was no illegal coordination between itself, legislative candidates, and other entities on independent expenditures. This the fourth time Montana Republicans have been caught using dark money in violation of Montana’s campaign finance laws in 2016 alone. The matter has been referred to the County Attorney of Lewis and Clark County for consideration as to prosecution. 

Ultimately, these violations and dark money expenditures led Commissioner Mangan to conclude: “The citizens of the State of Montana did not have access to complete and accurate MRLCC campaign finance data prior to election day. The Commissioner finds the MRLCC has violated Montana’s campaign finance laws by filing incomplete and inaccurate campaign finance reports.”

“This is proof of what Montanans have known for a long time: the Montana Republican Party cannot stand on the merits of their policies, which benefit millionaires, corporations, and special interests,” said Nancy Keenan, Executive Director of the Montana Democratic Party. “In their desire to win at all costs, the Montana Republican Party chose to use the MRLCC as a political slush fund filled with dark money. But Montanans can’t be bought and sold as easily as our Republican legislators, and we will not allow dirty political tricks or outside influence in our elections.”

In August, the Montana Republican State Central Committee (MRSCC) reported printing expenses of $2,557.13 as an independent expenditure for 20 legislative candidates. However, on its October 1, 2016 campaign finance report, the MRLCC included an addendum reporting $2,557.20 for the same 20 candidates as both an in-kind donation from the MRSCC and as an independent expenditure.

It is a violation of campaign finance law to report these expenses as both an in-kind donation and an independent expenditure, and it is unclear if this money was spent directly by the MRSCC, funneled to the MRLCC and then spent, or both. This uncertainty raises questions about whether there was illegal coordination of dark money independent expenditures between the MRLCC, candidates, and the State Committee. The MRLCC has been ordered by Commissioner Mangan to submit a copy of its “firewall” policy for official review. 

Among the 20 candidates who benefited from this illegally reported expenditure is Missoula legislator and MRSCC treasurer Mike Hopkins (R-HD92). As Treasurer, Hopkins is responsible for “depositing and disbursing funds, keeping accurate accounts, and administering the financial affairs” of the MRSCC. Hopkins won his 2016 race by 88 votes.

“The Commissioner’s finding shows that MRSCC Treasurer Mike Hopkins acted as a dark money ATM for Montana Republican candidates during the 2016 election,” said Amanda Frickle, Director of the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “Hopkins used unreported dark money to prop up his own campaign and the campaigns of other vulnerable candidates, allowing corporations and special interests to buy Republican legislators wholesale.”

Additionally, after examining candidates’ campaign finance disclosure forms, the COPP found that MRLCC campaign finance reports from April to October 2016 omitted numerous strategic planning calls and other services provided to candidates on the MRLCC’s dime. These unreported dark money expenditures were concealed from the public and the COPP, and jeopardized Montanans’ right to a free, transparent, and fair election. 

According to the COPP, the MRLCC’s violations of campaign finance laws cannot be excused as oversight or ignorance. Therefore, the COPP has issued a “sufficient evidence” finding, which justifies a civil fine or prosecution of the MRLCC. The matter has been referred to the County Attorney of Lewis and Clark County for consideration.

During the 2016 elections, the Montana Republican Party violated campaign finance laws in at least three other instances by using dark money to aid their legislative candidates:

  1. The Montana Republican Party failed to file an updated campaign finance report sufficiently describing or disclosing specific contributions, despite being ordered to do so by the COPP in a ruling on October 3rd, 2016.
  2. Mr. Ed Workman took out an ad in the Billings Gazette to support the candidacy of Representative Don Roberts (R-56), without registering as a political committee or disclosing the money he raised and spent.
  3. The Missoula County Republican Central Committee failed to timely file both a Statement of Organization and campaign finance reports as required before its election activity in the 2016 election cycle.

 The full COPP decision for MDP vs. MRLCC can be found here.

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