BILLINGS - A Billings Republican legislator has won a partial victory in his political practices complaint against the Montana Democratic Party.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl faulted Montana Democrats for not disclosing exactly how much money it spent to attack Doug Kary, who will represent the Billings Heights in the 2015 Legislature beginning next week.
The ruling follows at least three others in which third parties waged attack campaigns on candidates, but didn’t disclose the amount of money they spent in specific races. The disclosure is important, Motl said in his ruling, because people have a right to know how much third parties are spending to influence a political race.
Democrats said that previously their spending reports had been acceptable, but that the laws had recently changed and they hadn’t adapted. Since Motl notified political groups of the new reporting rule, Democrats have complied, said Bryan Watt, Montana Democratic Party spokesperson.
“The commissioner is setting a new standard where entities will need to report expenditures prior to being invoiced, so reports will be estimates rather than actual expenditures,” Watt said. “We have fully complied with the commissioner’s new reporting standard and amended the reports to ensure full compliance.”
Previously, third parties were allowed to lump their expenses for multiple races together, which is what the Montana Democratic Party did in the Kary race. In the final weeks before Election Day, the party had spent more than $50,000 on fliers in several races. It reported its spending activity listing the total, according to campaign reports, followed by a list of districts that received mailers. That wasn’t specific enough, Motl ruled.
Earlier, Motl faulted the Montana Democratic Party for using the same practice against Sen. Ed Buttrey, a Great Falls Republican. He also issued a similar ruling against Planned Parenthood Advocates in its campaign against Republicans Tonya Shellnutt, of Billings, and Dick Haines, of Missoula. Both Shellnutt and Haines lost.
Motl told The Gazette earlier in December that several political groups, both Democrat and Republican, hadn’t complied with the new financial disclosure laws. He has issued warnings to several groups out of concern for the 2016 election, which Motl said could be a big campaign spending year with big races for president and governor spilling money into down-ballot races, too.
Campaign records indicate that the Montana Republican Party was disclosing its expenditures in specific races as recently as October. Chris Shipp, Montana GOP executive officer, said the party wasn’t convinced Motl, appointed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, would give them the benefit of the doubt if the finances weren’t properly disclosed.
Kary lost his argument for another count. He had complained that Democrats violated the state’s “Clean Campaign Act,” which requires that candidates be notified of campaign ads attacking them in the last 10 days before Election Day. Motl ruled that four fliers attacking Kary were either sent out early enough to not require notice, or that Democrats had emailed Kary before their attack.