HELENA – A district judge ruled Wednesday that a disputed $500,000 donation to Republican governor candidate Rick Hill’s campaign is likely illegal, and she continued to prevent Hill from spending the money.

The Hill campaign at this time doesn’t plan to appeal the ruling by District Judge Kathy Seeley of Helena.

As a result, Seeley’s decision will effectively prevent Hill’s campaign from buying any advertising with the $500,000 before Tuesday’s election in his tightly contested race against Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock.

Earlier, the campaign had to cancel advertising purchased with the donation and already booked, as well as polling and other expenses.

Hill, however, can spend other funds he’s raised that are not part of the contested contribution.

It was another legal victory for Bullock, whose campaign went to court Oct. 18 to challenge the Hill campaign’s receipt of the $500,000 contribution from the Montana Republican Party. The state GOP in turn received the cash from the Republican Governors Association.

“The consequence of a $500,000 contribution in the context of a $1.5 million to $2 million, tight political race made in the final five weeks is significant,” Judge Seeley wrote. “Such a contribution would likely affect the outcome of the election.”

The judge said the $500,000 donation likely violates Montana’s $22,600 aggregate limit that a political party can contribute to a candidate for governor during an entire campaign.

The Hill campaign had argued the donation was legal because it came during a six-day window after Oct. 3, when a federal judge threw out Montana’s donation limits as unconstitutional, and Oct. 9, when a federal appeals court reinstated them.

Hill’s campaign manager, Brock Lowrance, was critical of the decision, but said no appeal is planned at this time. He said the campaign will comply with Seeley’s decision.

“There is not enough time left in the race to appeal this and get a corrected judgment from the Montana Supreme Court,” Lowrance said.

He added, “Over the past week, our campaign has received overwhelming support from Montanans who are outraged at the acts of desperation coming from Steve Bullock’s campaign. People are donating their time, money and effort to keep our campaign running strong.”

Meanwhile, Bullock’s campaign was pleased.

“This decision confirms what Montanans know – no one is above the law,” said Bullock’s campaign manager, Kevin O’Brien. “Steve Bullock has led the national fight to make sure it’s people, not corporations, that decide our elections. ...”

O’Brien called on Hill to return the $500,000 donation.

On Oct. 24, Seeley issued a temporary restraining order stopping the Hill campaign from spending the contested money until after a hearing. A hearing took place before Seeley on Monday. Two days later, the judge issued a preliminary injunction, which will remain in place until she issues a final order about the legality of the donation.

In her decision, Seeley made it clear the aggregate limit applies.

“Regardless of when the campaign actually received the contributions at issue here, Hill’s campaign now has received total or aggregate contributions from the Republican Party far in excess of the total campaign limits,” Seeley wrote. “The aggregate limits apply even though the federal district court’s injunction was in place when the Hill campaign took actual receipt of the $500,000 contribution principally at issue here.

“This is not retroactive application of a current statute to conduct that occurred in the past. Rather, this is is the application of the current and long-standing statute regarding contribution limits to the current election.”

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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