HELENA – A state district judge on Wednesday temporarily ordered Republican governor candidate Rick Hill to stop spending a disputed $500,000 donation and cancel all pending ads bought with this money, while she reviews the contribution’s legality.
District Judge Kathy Seeley of Helena issued the restraining order late Wednesday and scheduled oral arguments for 9 a.m. Monday.
That’s just eight days before the close governor’s race between Hill and Democrat Steve Bullock, with Libertarian Ron Vandevender running a distant third.
The lawyer for Bullock, the state’s attorney general, sought the temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction shortly after a federal judge sent the case back to state courts where Bullock wanted it in the first place. Bullock filed the lawsuit against Hill in state court Oct. 18, but Hill’s lawyer had moved it to federal court.
Bullock has argued that the $500,000 donation received by Hill’s campaign illegally exceeds the $22,600 maximum aggregate limit that a political party can give to a candidate for governor.
Hill disagreed. He said he legally received the donation Oct. 4 during a six-day window when state contribution limits, including the aggregate one, were struck down by a federal judge and before they were reinstated by an appeals court.
But Bullock’s lawyer contended that the $22,600 aggregate limit for party donations applies for the entire campaign.
“The limits do not merely regulate one-time behavior,” Bullock’s lawyer, Jonathan McDonald, said in a filing. “They are ongoing; they are continuous; they are perpetual from the beginning to the end of a campaign.”
In her order, Seeley said Hill and his campaign “are temporarily restrained from spending, using or realizing any benefit from the campaign contributions in excess of the aggregate amounts permitted by (state law).”
She ordered Hill and his campaign “to stop any agents, such as media buyers to whom these funds in whole or in part have been transferred, from proceeding to purchase any media time with these funds or otherwise benefit the Hill campaign through the use of the funds.”
“Insofar as advertisements have been purchased with these funds and are set to air immediately, they must be canceled,” Seeley ordered.
Hill’s campaign spent $621,181 with a Springfield, Va., advertising company to place ads since Oct. 8, including a $492,881 buy on Oct. 16, a campaign finance report Monday showed.
It was a double legal victory for Bullock and his campaign on Wednesday.
First, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen rejected the attempt by Hill’s attorney to move the lawsuit filed by Bullock against his opponent to federal court. Christensen said the interpretation of the statute “is a matter of state law and the state court is better suited to engage in that exercise.”
Shortly thereafter, Bullock’s attorneys filed legal documents and Seeley issued the temporary restraining order.
“While Congressman Hill is attempting to put our elections up for sale, Steve’s fighting to protect their integrity,” Bullock’s campaign manager Kevin O’Brien said. “We’re happy that this case is back in state court and we’re confident that Congressman Hill will have to do what he should have done all along – return this illegal contribution.”
Hill, meanwhile, said, “We will fight this injustice. We will have the resources to win this campaign. We will seek justice through every avenue available. This election should be decided by the voters, not the courts. ... We will succeed when we are before an impartial tribunal.”
Hill’s campaign manager, Brock Lowrance, said the Hill campaign would be taking steps Wednesday night to comply with the order until it can present its case to the courts. He condemned Seeley’s order as “abusive” and unprecedented – issued without a hearing, briefs, arguments or notice.
At issue is the $500,000 donation that Hill received Oct. 4 from the Montana Republican Party. It was after U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell struck down Montana’s donation limits on Oct. 3 and before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the limits on Oct. 9.
Hill said Wednesday night he’s confident that Lovell’s decision was correct and the contribution legal.
The Montana Republican Party must file a campaign finance report Thursday to disclose the source or sources of the $500,000 donation.
The $500,000 donation allowed Hill to surpass Bullock in money raised for the entire campaign for the first time. It enabled Hill to take the fundraising lead with $1,909,596, compared to Bullock’s $1,739,182 through Oct. 17. Reports filed Monday showed Hill raised $733,300, counting the $500,000, from Sept. 6 through Oct. 17, while Bullock raised less than half that amount, $321,461.
An affidavit from O’Brien, Bullock’s campaign manager, said by donating the $500,000 to Hill, the Republican Party was able to buy significantly more broadcast advertising than if the party bought the ads. O’Brien said third-party groups like political parties are now having to pay “eight, 10 or even 12 times more than the ‘lowest unit rate’ that is charged to candidates.”
Bullock’s attorney, McDonald, raised the possibility of Montana having to conduct a special election if Hill were to win on Nov. 6 and a court finds he violated state election laws.
“Plaintiffs (Bullock and running mate John Walsh) will be denied a fair and competitive election and the electorate will face the potential of having to both participate and pay for a special election if the results are voided per (state law) for the Hill campaign’s violation of (another state law),” McDonald said in a court filing.