HELENA - Both candidates in the Republican race for attorney general are denouncing a wave of illegal, last-minute automated phone calls launched over the weekend, with one saying the calls are Democratic dirty tricks.
The calls, which began going out Saturday, urged recipients to vote for Lee Bruner, a Butte lawyer and one of two GOP candidates in the attorney general primary race.
The calls were paid for by a group called Citizens for Strong Law Enforcement, said Bruner, who heard a recording of one of the calls.
Bruner said he had never before heard of the group and believed the illegal calls were so poorly orchestrated that they were actually an attempt to discredit his campaign. Bruner said his campaign was working on a formal complaint to Dennis Unsworth, Montana's commissioner of political practices.
"I don't approve of anything that group is doing," he said.
Automated campaign phone calls, dubbed "robo-calls," are illegal under Montana law. People who receive such a call should contact their local county attorney or law enforcement, according to information from the attorney general's office.
Bruner's opponent, Tim Fox, a Helena lawyer, filed his complaint about the calls Monday afternoon. Fox said he thought the calls were launched by trial lawyers intent on hurting his campaign.
Fox would not comment on why trial lawyers, often associated with Democratic causes, would seek to influence the GOP attorney general race. However, one common sentiment is that Democrats may think Bruner, a political newcomer with less money raised than Fox, would be an easier target in the November general election.
Both the Montana Democratic Party and the Montana Trial Lawyers Association said they knew nothing about the calls or the group behind them. Al Smith, executive director of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, said he had not heard of the group until contacted by a reporter Monday afternoon.
Little is known about the group. According to papers filed last week with the commissioner of political practices, the group has a Missoula bank account. Great Falls lawyer Tom Boland is listed as the group's treasurer.
According to an e-mail from Boland, he formed the group and has not consulted with either Fox's or Burner's campaigns.
The group was formed, according to paperwork, to "promote candidates who support strong and effective enforcement of Montana law, both statutory and common law."
Boland wrote in his e-mail that both political parties have used robo-calls in the past. He also wrote that, ironically, Fox earlier in the campaign brought up Montana's ban on the calls as an unenforceable law that should either be fixed or stricken from the books.
Boland is a member of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, Smith said, but he is not in any kind of leadership role in the group and acted alone when he formed Citizens for Strong Law Enforcement.
Kevin O'Brien, a spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, said the party had nothing to do with the group - or the calls - and didn't know about the group until the calls began attracting attention over the weekend.
"It seems to me that Montana Republicans and Tim Fox are getting desperate and whiney at the 13th hour," he said.
Both Bruner and Fox lamented the calls, saying they were an ugly turn in a race that has been gentlemanly and among friends.