HELENA – The Big Sky Freedom Fund, a new super political action committee based in Billings, has spent more than $83,000 this week in independent expenditures in support of Corey Stapleton in the five-way Republican U.S. House primary.

The committee formed April 15 as a super PAC to make independent expenditures and said in its filing it “intends to raise funds in unlimited amounts.” However, under federal law, it cannot use the funds to make direct, in-kind or coordinated communications on behalf of federal candidates.

In other words, the group can only make independent expenditures that cannot be coordinated with Stapleton. He can’t be aware of the group’s activities.

Big Sky Freedom Fund reported to the Federal Election Commission on Monday that it had paid $74,000 to LaVenture LLC of Bismarck, N.D., for media placement for ads supporting Stapleton, a former state senator from Billings.

The group also is spending an additional $9,000 on a poll. It hired Public Opinion Strategies LLC of Alexandria, Va.

Big Sky Freedom Fund lists its address 1645 Parkhill Dr., Suite 6, in Billings.

That’s the same address as 47 North Communications, a Republican political consulting and governmental affairs firm. Attempts to reach partners Dustin Frost in Billings and Jake Eaton in Helena were unsuccessful.

The treasurer for Big Sky Freedom Fund is Nancy Watkins, a certified public accountant from Tampa, Fla., who “ranks among the GOP’s most prominent campaign accountants,” according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Stapleton faces current Sens. Elsie Arntzen of Billings and Matt Rosendale of Glendive and former Sen. Ryan Zinke in the primary, along with Drew Turiano of Helena. They are seeking the seat being vacated by Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who is running for the U.S. Senate.

Also Monday, another super PAC, Special Operations for America, spent $30,000 with Multi Media Services of Alexandra, Va., for ad buys supporting Zinke and $30,000 with the same company to place ad buys against Rosendale, according to FEC reports.

That group, based in Malta, N.Y., has spent nearly $130,000 so far this year in independent expenditures in the Montana House race.

In March, two Washington, D.C., groups, Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, filed a complaint with the FEC, contending Zinke illegally coordinated with Special Operations for America, a committee he formed in 2012.

Zinke resigned as chairman of the PAC in September 2013, shortly before entering the House race.

His campaign manager Robert Kearley denounced the two Washington groups as being part of “the left-wing pressure campaign” that unfairly targets conservatives.

The FEC has not ruled on the complaint yet.

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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