HELENA - The Montana Outfitters & Guides Association has asked the Butte-Silver Bow County attorney to investigate what it believes are illegal signature-gathering efforts by backers of proposed Initiative 161.
The initiative would abolish outfitter-sponsored, nonresident big game and deer combination hunting licenses.
The letter from Mac Minard, executive director of the association, alleged that some signature-gatherers failed to have a full copy of the initiative petitions with them for people to read if they wished.
It also questioned the disparity in dates on sworn statements signed by some signature collectors and actual petitions as to when the first signatures were gathered.
Minard also questions the propriety of the alleged hiring of some Butte Pre-release Center inmates to gather signatures to work off "court-required community service as part of their sentence." The I-161 campaign hired an employment agency, Express Services of Montana, which in turn hired some pre-release inmates, the letter contended.
In his July 1 letter, Minard asked Butte-Silver Bow County Attorney Eileen Joyce to determine if some signature-gathering efforts violate state law and whether it constitutes "deceptive election practices."
"This request is time-sensitive and as such, it is respectfully requested that you pursue this matter as soon as possible," Minard wrote Joyce. "To say the least, signatures gathered without the presence of a petition for a voter to consult, as appeared to be required by Montana law, renders the signatures gathered to lack the integrity required by the process."
Any signatures determined to have been gathered in violation of the law should be disallowed, Minard said.
Contacted Wednesday, Joyce said she had received a copy of the letter, "but we haven't really had a chance to delve into it yet. We'll have to take a look at it."
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July 16 is the deadline for county election officials to turn in their signature counts to Secretary of State Linda McCulloch's office. To qualify for the ballot, I-161 needs 24,337 signatures of registered Montana voters, including 5 percent of the voters in 34 of the 100 state House districts.
It was unclear Wednesday whether I-161 will qualify for the November ballot. As of Monday, the Secretary of State's office had received 17,053 signatures approved by county officials and enough signatures in 27 of the 34 counties.
I-161's author, Kurt Kephart of Billings, said he's confident the measure will qualify for the ballot and criticized the outfitters' efforts to block it.
"I think the wheels are starting to come off on the part of the outfitters in their efforts to stop us," Kephart said. "I feel we've got our signatures. I think we've got public support."
He called it interesting that all the complaints about I-161's signature-gathering are coming from outfitters.
"The bottom line is they're doing everything and anything possible to derail the initiative," Kephart said. "They ought to put their best efforts forward instead of their worst."
He disputed the allegations and said there's nothing wrong with hiring pre-release center inmates to help gather signatures.
Last month, a paid signature-gatherer for I-161 apparently submitted some fraudulent signatures in Cascade County, Kephart said then. Cascade County officials are looking into the allegations.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.