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The state Commissioner of Political Practices has dismissed a complaint filed by a Kalispell Republican claiming a Right to Work group violated campaign finance laws in an effort to unseat him.

State Rep. Frank Garner, who is seeking re-election in House District 7, filed a complaint against Al Chan and Montana Citizens for Right to Work earlier this year.

Garner said Chan was recruiting candidates to run against him and claimed that activity qualified as an expenditure, which has to be reported in campaign finance statements made to the commissioner's office.

For the first three months of 2018, Chan worked for Montana Citizens for Right to Work. He held about 50 meetings with potential candidates to talk with them about right-to-work issues, trying to gauge where candidates stood and educate them.

Chan also distributed surveys to candidates. From the surveys and Chan’s field work, Montana Citizens for Right to Work distributed information about candidates to the group’s members.

In his dismissal of the complaint last month, state Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan said state law does not clearly weigh in on whether the cost of recruiting candidates is reportable, and it wasn’t the commissioner’s role to extend that definition.

“With the statutes and rules being silent on this issue, if the legislature or the citizenry would like the committees to report recruitment expenditures or contributions for similar efforts, then the cure is through citizen initiative or legislative action,” Mangan wrote.

In his dismissal, Mangan wrote many different types of groups, from political parties to business groups and special interest organizations, have likely engaged in activity that could be considered recruitment.

Mangan also wrote that since communications from Montana Citizens for Right to Work had not gone beyond the group's members, it was exempt from reporting requirements. If information gathered by Chan had been distributed beyond the group’s membership, Mangan wrote it would have to be reported and disclosed as an expenditure. That would include the cost of the surveys, renting any meeting space and anything else related.

“The best that can be said about the information gathered from the commissioner’s investigation is that there has not yet been any violation of the reporting and disclosure laws,” Mangan wrote.

Garner is one of the more moderate Republicans in the state Legislature. Last session he carried a bill that raised the state gas tax to pay for highway infrastructure projects. 

In June Garner won his primary against Robert Welzel with 71 percent of the vote. He's facing Democrat James Cossitt in the general election in November.

Montana Citizens for Right to Work has a history of campaign finance violations and working to try to get the most conservative Republican elected in state legislative primaries.

Former Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl issued a decision in 2014 saying Montana Citizens Right to Work and its parent organization, the National Right to Work Committee, coordinated election expenses with Western Traditions Partnership and made corporate contributions to candidates.

That case and several related ones are still working their way through the court system.

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