Ryan Zinke

Ryan Zinke

HELENA – Two groups filed a complaint Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission contending that Republican U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke illegally coordinated with a public action committee he formed in 2012.

Filing the complaint were the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21. Both groups are based in Washington, D.C., and advocate revising campaign finance laws to limit the influence of money in politics.

They asked the FEC to investigate possibly illegal in-kind contributions and coordination between Zinke and Special Forces for America, a super PAC he formed in 2012 to help the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney. The PAC now is backing congressional candidacies of Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL, and others who strongly support the military.

Zinke resigned as chairman of the PAC in September, shortly before entering the House race.

The groups filing the complaint called on the FEC to determine and impose “appropriate sanctions” for any violations, enjoin SOFA and Zinke from making any future violations, and impose any additional remedies to ensure they comply with federal law.

SOFA has spent more than $50,000 distributing pro-Zinke ads since the former Whitefish state senator launched his congressional campaign in October 2013, the groups said.

Their complaint said the PAC used photographs in its television ads that appear to have come from Zinke’s campaign because they are nearly identical to photos posted on the Zinke campaign’s Facebook page.

“If so, this is a clear violation of a federal law that prohibits super PACs from republishing candidate campaign materials,” said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center.

In response, Zinke’s campaign manager Robert Kearley denounced the two Washington groups as being part of “the left-wing pressure campaign” that unfairly targets conservatives.

“The fact that they are now targeting another conservative with a silly and frivolous complaint speaks to the left’s fear that Ryan Zinke is the Republican who will become Montana’s next congressman, and bring integrity and accountability to our nation’s Capitol,” Kearley said.

The complaint said the two SOFA TV ads each use still photos of Zinke wearing a blue blazer with a lapel pin and a blue plaid dress shirt, with a green tree in the background.

Two similar but not identical photos used in SOFA’s two television ads appear on Zinke’s congressional campaign’s Facebook page, the complaint said.

The PAC’s TV ads also showed Zinke, wearing the blue blazer, standing with his family, the complaint said. Zinke’s Facebook page shows a similar group photos of him with his family, but in difference poses than in the ads.

The fact that the two photos in the SOFA ads are similar but not identical to photos on the Zinke campaign Facebook page and aren’t found on Zinke’s campaign website “strongly suggests” that SOFA didn’t obtain the photos from the public domain, the groups said. It strongly suggests that Zinke or his campaign committee directly provided these photos to SOFA, they said.

The complaint said it “strongly suggests that both the photos in the SOFA ads and the photos on the Ryan Zinke for Congress Facebook page are from photo shoots” arranged and paid for by Zinke or his campaign.

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached by email at chuck.johnson@lee.net or by phone at (406) 447-4066 or (800) 525-4920.

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