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T.J. McDermott, left, Josh Clark and Bob Parcell, right, candidates for Missoula County sheriff, listen to a question from a panelist during an hour in front of local journalists at a Missoula Press Club forum.

Missoula County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. T.J. McDermott violated three campaign finance laws during his race for sheriff, according to a decision released Wednesday by Montana’s commissioner of political practices.

McDermott garnered the most votes in the Democratic primary against Undersheriff Josh Clark and Deputy Bob Parcel of Seeley Lake. No Republican candidate ran for the office.

Clark filed a complaint against McDermott and local law firm Datsopoulos, MacDonald and Lind P.C. on Aug. 20, alleging McDermott violated several campaign finance laws by accepting illegal corporate donations from the firm, among other items.

Clark has since announced he is running in the Nov. 4 general election as a write-in candidate.

In the decision released to the parties Wednesday, Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl ruled that some of Clark’s complaints were valid, concluding:

– The law firm provided $1,338.02 in corporate expenditures to McDermott’s campaign in the form of in-kind, unreported donations.

– The in-kind donations provided by the law firm were not reported or disclosed by the McDermott campaign in its campaign finance reports.

– McDermott failed to accurately report and disclose expenses accrued at WestRidge Creative, a business owned by Jim Parker, McDermott’s campaign manager. McDermott spent $11,105 at WestRidge, including $40 per hour for consulting services, which the law says must be itemized.

In a separate ruling also released Wednesday, Motl ruled the Datsopoulos, MacDonald and Lind law firm also violated five campaign finance laws by exceeding contribution limits, failing to provide attribution on campaign event invitations, failing to register as a political committee and providing in-kind donations of $1,338.02 and then failing to report them. Motl said that as lawyers with campaign experience, the law firm is held to a “higher standard.”

Motl said the law firm and McDermott will need to apologize to the community and opposing candidates for the violations, file amended campaign finance reports and keep a distance between the sheriff’s office and lawyers at the law firm. He also said the law firm needs to collect fees accrued by the campaign during the election.

If the conditions are not agreed upon, Motl said he reserves the right to pursue civil and criminal prosecution in court and a civil fine may be imposed.

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In an interview Wednesday evening, McDermott said he didn’t have time to fully evaluate the findings, but after an initial look attributed the violations to a one-time “accounting error,” noting that his campaign properly accounted for another $51,000 spent during the primary election.

He said the campaign is willing to fix the errors, but was not specific on which of Motl’s conditions he would agree to.

“We will work out those details with the commissioner and we are willing to fully work this out,” McDermott said. “This isn’t something that disqualifies someone from office or removes someone from office.”

He also said he was disappointed that Clark recently announced his write-in candidacy.

“Josh Clark hasn’t been able to move on from the primary election, where the voters of Missoula chose me for sheriff,” he said.

“The contentiousness negatively impacts the people in the sheriff’s department and is a distraction from the important work that we have to do in the community,” he added.

Clark, who released the findings to the media Wednesday, said he expected the outcome of the commissioner’s findings and was proud to “stand up” for the people of Missoula County by filing the complaint against McDermott.

When asked when infighting at the sheriff’s department would end, Clark asked whether voters wanted a department that got along or one that did the right thing.

“People are not grasping the fact that he broke the law, and I am the only one that stood up for the people,” he said.

“I am not going to sacrifice the public’s trust to appease (a) handful of deputies,” he said, adding that those deputies are “comfortable with breaking the law and bending the rules.”

He pointed to McDermott’s statements to the media after the complaint had been made, in which he categorically denied accepting corporate donations.

“Rather than just stand up and tell the truth, their strategy is to deny, deny and deny, and point the finger at me,” Clark said.

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Reporter Kathryn Haake can be reached at 523-5268 or at kate.haake@missoulian.com.

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