Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that political spending is free speech, money has flooded Montana’s elections. Average Montanans’ cash can’t compete with the big spenders but we have the right to know who is spending how much. The U.S. Supreme Court has, so far, upheld the public’s right to know about campaign spending.
In Montana, the responsibility for shining the light of public disclosure on campaign finance is assigned to the commissioner of political practices, a person nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Montana Senate. COPP Jeff Mangan started his job about a year ago with a staff of six, which was reduced to five through state budget cuts, bringing the annual budget down to $670,000. The department is working with 500 candidates, plus parties and committees that will be filing reports in the next few weeks before the June 5 primary, Mangan told The Billings Gazette in a telephone interview Wednesday.
The COPP staff is on the phone with candidates and the public all day long answering questions. Mangan recently completed a series of four educational workshops across the state designed to inform candidates and committees of legal reporting requirements. The office also has a handful of open investigations and several older cases in settlement talks or litigation. April has been an especially busy month:
• On Tuesday, the COPP issued a finding that a committee supporting renewal of the 6-mill statewide higher education levy had failed to report all donor information on time. Mangan’s ruling said Montanans for 6 Mill could have to pay a civil fine, but he noted that the committee had been in “constant contact” with his office since before the complaint was filed earlier this year.
• On April 13, the COPP announced settlement of a civil case against Montana Growth Network, a conservative political organization led by Jason Priest of Red Lodge and Ed Walker of Billings, two Republicans who served in the Montana Senate several years ago. Mangan and Priest, who was the Montana Growth Network’s executive director, signed an agreement that the organization “admits it violated certain campaign finance and practice laws and associated administrative rules” and paid $30,000. The MGN had disclosed $47,102 in spending in 2012, but not another $144,059 spent to influence nine Montana Senate races and a Montana Supreme Court election. The MGN’s federal tax form showed it spent at least $495,301 with political consultants in Florence and in Billings.
• On April 20, Kristen Madsen, an attorney in the Montana Department of Justice, dismissed a complaint filed in January against Billings attorney Gene Jarussi, who had been accused of forming a political committee and failing to properly report contributions to the 2016 House campaign of Jessica Karjala, a Billings Democrat. Madsen took that case because the complaining party, Jake Eaton, a Billings political consultant who did business with Montana Growth Network, claimed that Jarussi should not be allowed to represent the COPP on the MGN case and that Mangan should not decide his complaint on Jarussi. It’s a long story, but Madsen’s conclusion was unequivocal: “there is no evidence of a campaign practice violation.”
• On April 23, the COPP announced that Wesley Prouse, of Shepherd, had paid $70,211 to satisfy the civil penalty imposed by the District Court more than two years ago in a case concerning his failure to report campaign contributions in 2010. The announcement thanked Prouse, a former legislator, for accepting responsibility, thanked Debra Bonogofsky of Billings for bringing the violation to COPP attention and thanked Jarussi for volunteering as special attorney general for no fee.
The COPP relies on pro bono attorneys who volunteer their services at no charge because its budget doesn’t have money to pay them. Cases in which Jarussi volunteered his services have netted $230,000 in fines and settlements — all of which went into the state general fund, Mangan said. The $100,000 in fines and settlement collected this month went straight to the state general fund, as all COPP collections do.
Montanans are fortunate to have a dedicated COPP staff working for transparency in our elections.
-- Billings (Mont.) Gazette