HELENA – Defeated gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill has asked a federal court to block a state investigation of a complaint filed last fall by his opponent’s campaign manager over Hill receiving a $500,000 donation from the Montana Republican Party.
Hill, his campaign committee and his treasurer filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Helena on Tuesday against Jonathan Motl, the state’s new political practices commissioner.
Hill and his campaign could face a potential maximum fine exceeding $1.5 million if the commissioner decides they violated the law.
“The Hill campaign reasonably fears that defendant (Motl) will unlawfully seek to penalize it and other campaigns for relying upon this court’s order in accepting excess contributions between Oct. 3, 2012, and Oct. 9, 2012,” the complaint said.
Hill’s decision to accept the $500,000 donation triggered not only the political practices complaint, but also a separate legal action in District Court.
The controversy erupted less than a month before the November election and dominated the political news. Democrat Steve Bullock defeated Hill, 49 percent to 47 percent, with a Libertarian candidate getting the rest of the votes.
Hill’s attorney, Matthew Monforton of Bozeman, asked the federal court to declare that Motl’s “threatened enforcement action” against Hill, his committee and treasurer violates the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Monforton asked the court to enjoin Motl to prevent him from taking enforcement in the complaint filed in October 2012 by Kevin O’Brien, Bullock’s campaign manager.
“We believe that people should not be subject to politically motivated complaints for actions that were expressly permitted by federal court,” Monforton said Thursday.
In response to the complaint, Motl said, “It appears premature to me.”
He took office as commissioner on June 10 after Bullock appointed him to fill the vacant commissioner’s job.
Motl said the commissioner’s office previously received five complaints, including the one against Hill, involving allegations that candidates had accepted illegal donations exceeding state limits.
All five have been stayed, he said, until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issues a final ruling in the lawsuit filed last year by Doug Lair against former Political Practices Commissioner Jim Murry. This lawsuit challenged the legality of Montana’s donation limits.
On Oct, 3, 2012, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ruled in the Lair case and struck down the state’s campaign donation limits.
Six days later, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Lovell’s order and restored the Montana contribution limits.
During the six-day window, Hill received a $500,000 donation from the Montana Republican Party and excessive donations from individuals totaling $4,790.
In the complaint, Hill cited a response issued Oct. 12 by Kym Trujillo, who works in the political practices office, to a Republican legislator. She urged candidates receiving more than the normal limits to keep an “extremely good record.” Trujillo said the more records a candidate had showing when these contributions came in, “the better defense you will have.”
“The Hill campaign reasonably considered this statement to be a commitment by the commissioner to refrain from penalizing candidates who accepted excess contributions between in which this court’s order in Lair was in full force and effect,” the complaint said.
On Oct. 17, O’Brien filed a complaint against Hill with the political practices commissioner, alleging that Hill’s acceptance of the $500,000 donation was illegal.
On the same day, Bullock and running mate John Walsh sought a temporary restraining order in state District Court, also alleging the contribution was illegal.
District Judge Kathy Seeley of Helena issued a temporary restraining order on Oct. 24 to stop the Hill campaign from spending whatever portion of the $500,000 Hill had left on grounds it was likely illegal. A political party can give a maximum of $22,600 maximum to a candidate for governor. She later upheld the order.
After the election, the District Court lawsuit was dropped under a mutual agreement by the Bullock and Hill campaigns, but the political practices complaint wasn’t.