THOMPSON FALLS – A local nonpartisan civic group will decide in the next week or two whether to pursue a claim against the vice chairman of the Sanders County Republican Central Committee in state District Court.
Members of Women for a Better Sanders County say Dick Wells, the local GOP vice chairman, deliberately misled voters when he filed ownership of their name with the Montana secretary of state, then purchased ads in local weekly newspapers saying WBSC was backing Republican Bob Brown in the House District 13 race.
Women for a Better Sanders County, which does things such as sponsor candidate forums, has never endorsed any candidate, President Carolyn Hidy says, and never will. Its purpose, Hidy continued, is to promote honest, civil discourse and let people make up their own minds.
The group asked Sanders County Justice Court to order Wells to repay $282.45 for ads they took out to counter his claims that WBSC was endorsing Brown – who went on to win the Republican primary and general election – and to cover court filing fees.
WBSC also wants Wells to write a public letter of apology to Sanders County voters.
Last week, Justice of the Peace Donald Strine said his court lacked jurisdiction in matters pertaining to election materials, and told WBSC it would have to take it up in District Court.
“It’s the principle of the matter,” Hidy said Friday. “If this becomes standard practice, it will be open season on pretending to be anyone you want and speaking for them.”
But pursuing the small claim in District Court means hiring an attorney to represent WBSC, Hidy said.
“We filed in Justice Court because we were asking for small damages,” she explained. “Justice Court is like the people’s court, where you tell your story. District Court is highly procedural” and she’s not sure if Women for a Better Sanders County would want to move forward without the assistance of a lawyer.
For his part, Wells – who issued a required written apology to the group in September – says he did nothing wrong.
“I exercised my prerogative to use a business name I bought and paid for,” he said Friday. “I insist I cannot let other people decide what I can and can’t do.”
Wells used all capital letters when applying to purchase the name in 2013. The nonpartisan group uses upper and lower cases. Women for a Better Sanders County was formed in 2012 and has been active since, but did not apply for ownership of the name with the Secretary of State until February of this year.
Wells withdrew his registration for the name from the Secretary of State’s Office after WBSC member Linda Haywood filed a complaint with the Montana commissioner of political practices.
“They didn’t own the name,” said Wells, who admitted he was aware of the nonpartisan group when he applied to buy the name they used. Asked why he chose “Women for a Better Sanders County,” he said, “I thought it had a nice ring to it.”
Asked if he felt it was deceptive for a lone male to purchase “Women for a Better Sanders County” for the purpose of publicly endorsing a political candidate, Wells said no.
“They’ve got men in their group,” he said.
There was sufficient evidence Wells violated Montana campaign practice laws, Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl ruled last summer.
“Mr. Wells, like each of us, must obey the law and he cannot legitimately now claim that enforcement of laws serving the public good is infringing on his rights as an individual,” Motl said.
Motl issued his decision three weeks after the June primary election, but not because Wells appropriated the name of the nonpartisan civic group to endorse Brown.
Motl said Wells went to “considerable lengths” to establish a legal basis for his use of the group’s name, but then “forgot” attribution, reporting and disclosure obligations that come with placing political ads.
Wells failed to file as a political committee with the commissioner of political practices, Motl ruled. By using the WBSC name he had purchased, and claiming Brown was “our only choice” instead of “my only choice,” Wells misled voters by suggesting a group, and not Wells alone, was endorsing Brown.
He also failed to attribute himself as the source of ads endorsing Brown in the Clark Fork Valley Press. His name was listed in similar ads in the Sanders County Ledger, but Motl termed that a “hollow attribution as the entity listed had not filed as a political committee.”
To differentiate between the civic group and Wells, Motl labeled them WBSC1 and WBSC2.
“WBSC1 and WBSC2 share the same name and could be easily confused, thereby misleading voters,” Motl wrote. “If attribution is to have any purpose at all it must be applied vigorously in this matter so that voters understand who, or what, is funding the advertisement they are looking at.”
Hidy said Wells was well aware of the civic group, and charged that he “filed for the name for purposes of deception.”
“He made it seem as if we support candidates,” Hidy said. “First, we never do that. Second, he threatened our nonprofit status by making it look like we did. And third, people had to be asking what we were thinking, supposedly supporting a candidate who didn’t even come to our candidate forum.”
Hidy said Women for a Better Sanders County sponsored a public candidate forum prior to the June primary and invited all four candidates.
Brown was running against Katy Walton for the Republican nomination, and the primary was already an interesting one because a former Sanders County Republican Central Committee vice chairman, Gerald Cuvillier, had filed for the Democratic nomination against Weylin Achatz.
“We called it a candidate speech night,” Hidy said. “It was not a debate, we just invited all four to come and honestly present themselves to the public.”
Three came. Hidy said Brown declined, telling her, “I don’t think that’s a place I need to be.”
Shortly after the forum, Hidy said her group was surprised to find ads in the Clark Fork Valley Press, on May 14, and the Sanders County Ledger, on May 15, saying Women for a Better Sanders County had endorsed Brown as “our only choice.”
The ads continued on May 21-22 and May 28-29, along with ones the civic organization took out to say it had endorsed no one.
“If this stands as a legal way to do business, I could claim to be a church, file for the church’s name using all capital letters, and then come out in support of social issues the church doesn’t support,” Hidy said. “It’s deceptive.”
“It’s simple enough,” Wells countered. “I bought an Assumed Business Name and started placing ads in support of a candidate. I’m pretty confident that I did nothing wrong.”
As part of a settlement agreement reached between Motl and Wells, Wells wrote a letter of apology to Haywood and WBSC.
“Please accept my sincere apology and forgive my offence to Women for a Better Sanders County WBSC,” it says. “When I placed political ads as WOMEN FOR A BETTER SANDERS COUNTY (WBSC) in the two local newspapers, you voiced concern in letters to the Secretary of State and me. Then, when you challenged my use of the name, I rescinded the registration for that name. Please forgive me.”
Motl cited Wells’ voluntary relinquishment of the name, and his status as a disabled military veteran “of limited resources,” in not fining Wells for violating campaign laws.