HELENA – A target of an investigation into political “dark money” groups in Montana has fired back with a lawsuit, accusing the state’s top political cop of taking procedural steps that violate the law.
Ronald Murray, a 2010 Republican legislative candidate from Belgrade, filed suit Friday in state District Court in Bozeman, saying Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl should have brought the case against Murray in Gallatin County instead of Lewis and Clark County.
The suit said the law requires campaign-violation cases to be filed where the alleged violations occurred and that Murray has the right to argue his case before a jury of his peers in his home county.
The lawsuit also hinted at how Murray may attack Motl’s investigation in the future, saying Motl “took unprecedented action and reopened, or set aside (an earlier) decision” and “then expanded the allegations of the original complaint and created a new complaint.”
Motl said Tuesday he hadn’t yet seen the lawsuit, but that his office takes it seriously “and will respond on behalf of the people of Montana to the fullest extent that we can.”
He also noted that similar complaints have been made in the past to block campaign violation investigations, and failed.
Violations of campaign finance laws occur in Lewis and Clark County, he said, because his Helena office is where those laws are enforced, so any case can be pursued in that county.
Murray, who lost a 2010 primary race in House District 69 to Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, is one of several Montana legislative candidates named in a series of actions by Motl against several nonprofit groups involved in the 2010 Montana elections.
Motl has alleged the affiliated groups – known by critics as “dark money” groups because they often don’t report where they spend or raise their funds – broke Montana law by making unreported and illegal corporate donations to candidates they supported.
The actions also allege that the candidates broke campaign laws by accepting the assistance.
Murray has denied any connection with the groups, saying he knew nothing about their actions in the 2010 campaign.
In that campaign, the groups paid for campaign mailers that attacked Washburn as too liberal on a variety of issues. Washburn defeated Murray by 182 votes in the June 2010 Republican primary and went on to win the general election.
Motl has said his actions on these related cases in the past five months are meant to define campaign finance rules in Montana for state candidates and political groups involved in the 2014 elections.
Motl has made a number of findings in the cases, but has yet to settle any of them or file action in court that could lead to civil penalties or other resolution of the cases.