HELENA – A Missoula man violated state law by failing to put a disclaimer on his newspaper advertisements offering to spend $10,000 to help any challengers oust Missoula school board trustees in the May election, the political practices commissioner said Friday.
Commissioner Jonathan Motl concluded that a fine is warranted against John Suprock, who paid for four newspaper ads costing a total of $1,600, but who failed to adequately disclose who had paid for them.
However, Motl concluded that Suprock’s actions didn’t amount to illegal vote-buying.
Motl referred the violation to Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg. If he declines to prosecute, the case will return to Motl, where a fine likely will be negotiated.
Suprock, a Missoula business broker and real estate salesman, placed his first ad in March, seeking school board candidates and offering a “reward” of up to $10,000 per campaign to candidates who stepped up to challenge four incumbents on the Missoula County Public Schools board. He targeted trustees Toni Rehbein, Scott Bixler, Joe Toth and Drake Lemm. (Rehbein, however, opted not to run for re-election.)
An official in the political practices commissioner’s office notified Suprock on the day that the first ad ran, informing him that it potentially violated state contribution limits.
As a result, Suprock changed the ad and ran it three more times. The revised version offered to make an independent expenditure of up to $10,000 per seat to those challenging the trustees. Independent expenditures are legal, so long as there is no coordination with the candidates.
Bixler filed the complaint against Suprock later in March, saying the ads failed to have the proper disclosure identifying who was paying for them – and alleging they were an attempt to buy trustee candidates.
Bixler, Toth and Lemm all were unseated in the May election. The defeats followed several months of public frustration over the board’s decision earlier this year to give Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Alex Apostle a 13 percent pay raise.
Suprock told the commissioner’s investigator that he did not know, had never met and did not make an expenditure on behalf of any of the candidates who challenged the trustees.
In his decision, Motl said state law requires political advertising to contain a disclosure telling who is paying for an advertisement.
“Mr. Suprock chose a bold and loud method of election speech,” Motl said. “It is logical and fair, thereby promoting civic discourse, that Mr. Suprock would also announce to the public and candidates the name and the address of the person paying for this statement.”
As for the charge of illegal vote-buying, Motl said Suprock “took no definite action to identify a candidate or pay the money.” He also cited the precedent established in a previous case decided by a former commissioner.
But Motl said that candidates should take careful note of the law and avoid taking actions that trigger these concerns in the future.
He added, “Mr. Suprock and others are advised to avoid this sort of ad or action in the future.”
Suprock could not be reached for comment on Friday.