BILLINGS – Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana violated state law in its campaign against a Billings Republican in the 2014 elections, the state Commissioner of Political Practices has ruled.
Commissioner Jonathan Motl, in an opinion issued Monday, said Planned Parenthood Advocates failed to notify GOP legislative candidate Tonya Shellnutt of attack ads targeting her in the last 10 days before the Nov. 4 election. State law requires that candidates receive notice of attacks launched during the election cycle's last 10 days so they can respond.
Planned Parenthood Advocates acknowledged to Motl that its attack against Shellnutt didn't comply with state law, then self-reported committing the same violation against Missoula Republican Dick Haines.
Planned Parenthood Advocates is the political arm of Planned Parenthood, a provider of women's health services, including abortion. Planned Parenthood Advocates also disclosed to Motl campaign finance reporting violations.
"Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, recognizes and takes responsibility for our failure to inform Ms. Shellnutt of our opposition mailer within the 10 day time frame as required by Montana law," said spokeswoman Jill Baker, in a written statement. "This was an oversight and an unintentional mistake."
The group apologized for the violation.
While glad for the ruling, Shellnutt said it was too late to make a difference.
"I didn't get a chance to rebut their claims," Shellnutt said. "You take all the people who voted for me and those that didn't and they didn't get an opportunity to hear a rebuttal either. That's a disservice."
Mailed to voters eight days before Election Day, the Planned Parenthood flier portrayed a female doctor the statement "Tonya Shellnutt thinks abortion should be illegal – even in cases of rape and incest, and to save a mother's life.
"Tonya Shellnutt's dangerous views would put women's health at risk."
Shellnutt lost by 532 votes to Democrat Mary McNally in Senate District 24.
In Missoula, Haines' race was much closer in Senate District 49. The Missoula Republican lost to Democrat Diane Sands by 35 votes in a race that was decided by recount last week.
Thursday, Haines told The Gazette he was unaware that Planned Parenthood Advocates had mailed attack ads to voters in his district. He was also unaware of Motl's ruling or that Planned Parenthood Advocates had used its response to the Shellnutt complaint to self-report its violations in Senate District 49.
"Do I get another election?" Haines asked. He doesn't.
Because Planned Parenthood Advocates broke the law, Motl said he has to turn the case over to prosecutors in the county in which Political Practices resides. The Lewis and Clark County attorney can either prosecute the case or return it to Motl. Typically the attorney does the latter, Motl said.
Once the case is returned to Motl, the commissioner will negotiate a fine with Planned Parenthood Advocates.
The issue of broader consequence, might be Planned Parenthood's failure to provide notice of independent independent expenditures in its campaigns against Shellnutt and Haines, Motl said. The organization reported its spending of $14,000 in a lump sum, rather than disclosing specifically which campaigns it was targeting.
In Shellnutt's race, that one attack flier mailed eight days ahead of Election Day, cost Planned Parenthood Advocates $3,590. Candidates, the press and the public have a right to know not only who is influencing an election, but also how much they're spending to do so, Motl said.
"It matters to the constituents in Shellnutt's district who's spending. It matters to the press who are monitoring the race," Motl said. "They need to have an easy way to determine who is influencing Shellnutt's race."
Motl said most third-party groups in the 2014 election failed to identify exactly how much money they spend in particular races. The commissioner said he will be working on better reporting from third-party groups in preparation for the 2016 elections, in which he expects a lot of money will be spent.
Meanwhile, only complaints like Shellnutt's against third-party groups will bring action by the the commissioner's office, Motl said.