Judge rules on Montana campaign disclosure challenge
A federal judge in Missoula last week resolved a recent legal dispute between an out-of-state super PAC and Montana Political Practices Commissioner Jeff Mangan, ruling that Mangan’s enforcement of state disclosure requirements to the group was constitutional.
The order, issued Oct. 6 by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy, stems from a series of political pamphlets and radio ads distributed by the Convention States Political Fund (CSPF) in support of three Republican candidates. in the 2022 Montana Legislative Election. Mangan investigated the super PAC in response to a citizen complaint and found that he violated campaign practice laws by failing to adequately disclose his activity in the state with his office.
CSPF challenged that decision in a civil lawsuit against Mangan in July, arguing that Montana’s disclosure rules for nonresident political committees are “vague” and in violation of the US Constitution. The super PAC further claimed that he was originally ordered by an anonymous member of Mangan’s staff to file in accordance with disclosure deadlines in his home state of Michigan. Mangan’s attorneys refuted that claim in court, saying none of his staff had any recollection of such a conversation and pointing out that Michigan’s disclosure timelines do not align with Montana’s election timeline of a way that ensures transparency for voters.
Molloy echoed that last point in his ruling, writing that due to the CSPF following Michigan timelines rather than Montana, “the public was only made aware of the circumstances surrounding the nominees and their support” a month and a half after the primary election. If such committees weren’t held to timelines appropriate to Montana’s election cycle, Molloy added, they could “consciously avoid disclosure by forming in states with less stringent disclosure timelines than Montana” — one result. which “would undermine the very purpose of disclosing the Montana campaign”. laws.”
Toward the end of his order, Molloy also cited the challenges Mangan described in contacting the CSPF about the complaint in May as a stark demonstration of why political committees — resident and nonresident — are required to file. with the state immediately after their first foray into campaign activity.
“The trial testimony made it clear that the commissioner had difficulty contacting [CSPF] when he first received a citizen’s complaint, forcing him to use ‘Google-fu’ to try to find the organization and take pictures in the dark of general contact information,” Molloy wrote. “This whole saga could have been avoided if the applicant had filed his declaration of organization in accordance with [Montana law].”
Spending goals outside of Montana’s legislative primaries
The States Convention Political Fund has donated tens of thousands of dollars to support three Republican legislative candidates in Montana, sparking a campaign practices lawsuit. But do the candidates actually support the larger mission of the group?
Neither Mangan nor the States Convention Political Fund immediately responded to email requests for comment on Molloy’s decision, and CSPF’s lead attorney in the federal court case did not immediately respond. returned an email support request for a statement from the super PAC. According to its website, CSPF’s mission is to support a call for a convention of state legislatures to amend the US Constitution, a process outlined in Article V of the US Constitution.
Molloy’s ruling upholding the constitutionality of requiring the CSPF to meet Montana’s disclosure deadlines wasn’t the only resolution surrounding the group’s activities this fall. On Sept. 21, Mangan dismissed a separate lawsuit filed against the super PAC by the national nonprofit watchdog Center for Media and Democracy. CMD filed the lawsuit in August alleging that the CSPF violated state law by concealing the true source of its funding. The super PAC, which has spent more than $126,000 in Montana, got more than a third of its money from an Arizona-based nonprofit political organization called Conservative Action for America, which like other so-called black money groups, is not required to disclose its donors. Based in part on the fact that Conservative Action for America was created by CSPF founder Richard Johnson, CMD claimed that the money used for candidate research, flyers and radio ads in Montana came from “straw donor contributions”.
In a response filed with Mangan’s office, the two groups called CMD’s complaint lacking in supporting evidence. Mangan finally agreed in his decision last month, writing that neither he nor the plaintiff had uncovered evidence that Conservative Action for America had solicited donations expressly for use in messaging during the Montana election. Without such evidence, the state “has no jurisdiction” over the nonprofit, Mangan wrote, adding that the CSPF “correctly and appropriately” named the nonprofit as as a contributor.
CMD executive director Arn Pearson told the Montana Free Press via email this week that his organization was “disappointed” by Mangan’s dismissal of the lawsuit.
“But note that the commissioner did not address the merits,” Pearson added. “CMD stands by their claim that the band formed a fake [nonprofit] in Arizona to hide the identities of the major donors to his super PAC, and will pursue the case in other states. Voters should be very careful about putting the fate of the US Constitution in the hands of a radical group that goes to such lengths to hide who funded its big bid to influence the Montana primaries.