HELENA – Democratic governor candidate Steve Bullock went to court Thursday to ask a district judge to order his opponent, Rick Hill, to return a recent $500,000 donation from the Montana Republican Party.
In a lawsuit filed late Thursday in state District Court, Bullock and running mate John Walsh argued that the GOP’s $500,000 donation to Hill is illegal and sought an injunction against Hill and his campaign.
The state Republican Party donated the $500,000 to Hill on Oct. 4, a day after U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ruled that Montana’s contribution limits were illegal.
Hill has said the contribution was legal because it came during the six-day period when Montana’s campaign donation limits were void, thus allowing for unlimited donations.
That ended Tuesday when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put a hold on Lovell’s decision and reinstated the state campaign limits until at least through the election.
The lawsuit came with 20 days left before the Nov. 6 election as Bullock and Hill are locked in a tight race to succeed Democrat Brian Schweitzer as governor.
Under state law, a political party can give only $22,600 to a candidate, and Hill had already received that money from the Republican Party when he got the $500,000.
In response to the lawsuit, Hill’s campaign manager Brock Lowrance said, “Bullock’s wild accusations about a legal campaign contribution is a desperate move by a panicked campaign trying to gain headlines. It is apparent our opponent and his allies are hoping to use this legal campaign contribution as a distraction from the real issues of this election.”
Lowrance said there are five investigations pending over Bullock’s own campaign practices at the political practices office.
The lawsuit asked District Judge Kathy Seeley of Helena to issue temporary, preliminary and permanent injunctions to stop Hill and his campaign from violating state election laws.
It also asked the judge to require Hill and his campaign “to immediately perform the acts necessary to comply with Montana’s election law.” That would include returning the $500,000, which the Hill campaign said it has already spent.
“Immediate injunctive relief is necessary in order to correct the irreparable harm that has occurred and continues to occur as a result of the violations of Montana’s campaign finance laws,” the Bullock complaint said. “The harm is flowing not only to plaintiffs (Bullock and Walsh), but also to the state of Montana and its citizens, as expressly recognized by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.”
The lawsuit noted that after Lovell’s ruling, state Political Practices Commissioner Jim Murry strongly recommended that candidates, political committees and contributors abide by the state contribution limits.
Bullock and Walsh said they don’t have the time to take up the matter with the political practices office for “a plain, speedy or adequate remedy” so they turned to the District Court.
Money is critical in the remaining days of the campaign, when candidates are spending down their balances on advertising and direct mail.
Through Sept. 5, Bullock, who had token primary opposition, had raised $1,428,027, while Hill, who won a seven-way primary, had collected $1,130,566. New financial reports are due Monday.
On Tuesday, Bullock’s campaign formally requested that Hill’s campaign open its books for inspection, a practice allowed under state law.
However, instead, Hill’s campaign the next morning issued a news release with its draft campaign finance report. Hill’s campaign said he had raised more than $685,000 since Sept. 6, including the $500,000 donation from the Republican Party.