Ruling: MT Dem Party violated campaign-reporting laws in 2016

HELENA – The Montana Democratic Party violated campaign-reporting laws last year by failing to identify which candidates it was supporting with $300,000 in ads and other spending, the state’s top campaign enforcer said Monday.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan also said the party did not properly report that it would be spending money to support nonpartisan Supreme Court candidate Dirk Sandefur in the 2016 election.

But Mangan rejected an allegation that the party illegally coordinated with Sandefur’s successful campaign.

Mangan’s order said he’ll likely negotiate a fine that the Democratic Party will pay as a penalty – as the office often does with those found to have violated campaign-finance and reporting laws.

Democratic Party officials said they would work with Mangan “to find a resolution to the complaint.”

Party spokesman Roy Loewenstein also told MTN News Monday that the party had filed the correct information with Mangan’s office last October, but that problems with the office’s electronic reporting system led to the the material not being accepted.

“We have updated the filings in question and, in the future, we will be filing additional information to correct this deficiency in the reporting system,” he said.

The order, issued last week and released Monday, stems from a complaint filed this summer by Jake Eaton, a Billings political consultant who usually works for Republican candidates.

Eaton said the Democratic Party made numerous independent expenditures to support the re-election campaign of Gov. Steve Bullock and various Democratic legislative candidates, but didn’t report the beneficiaries of that spending, as required.

He told MTN News Monday that the ruling shows the “hypocrisy” of the Democratic Party in Montana, which has been a vocal supporter of tougher campaign-finance reporting laws.

“You’ve got them claiming to be the champions of openness in government and campaign-finance reform and they can’t even follow their own laws,” he said.

Eaton also criticized Mangan for dismissing the claim that Democrats illegally coordinated with Sandefur’s 2016 campaign.

“I think if it would have been a Republican, it probably would have been a different outcome,” Eaton said. “They’re taking (the Democrats’) word for it that, `Oh, we didn’t do anything wrong.’ That has not been the case with Republican candidates and committees.”

Mangan, a former Democratic state senator who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, said his office applied the law and the facts to Eaton’s allegation and that they “led to the dismissal of one (charge) and supported that other violations occurred. … It is what it is.”

Eaton’s complaint noted that the same person worked as a deputy treasurer for the Montana Democratic Party and Sandefur’s campaign. It’s illegal for groups making independent campaign expenditures to coordinate with the candidate they support.

The Democratic Party said the deputy treasurer was essentially an accountant for the campaign and had no involvement in any “political day-to-day decision-making that occurs within party staff.” The deputy treasurer – Holly Giarraputo – also said that she performed accounting duties for 15 campaigns.

The party provided a “firewall agreement” signed by Giarraputo in July 2016 that prohibited communication about independent expenditures.