Commissioner: 2 candidates broke election laws

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Two more legislative candidates illegally coordinated with a secretive conservative group, the state commissioner of political practices said Thursday, bringing the total to five candidates accused of campaign violations in the 2010 Montana elections.

Commissioner Jonathan Motl said more rulings are still to come involving additional candidates from 2010, as are the first court actions against some of the candidates already named in the sweeping investigation into the involvement of so-called dark money corporate groups in state campaigns.

“If we don’t do something about this real widespread thing that happened in 2010, how do we expect candidates to abide by our laws?” Motl said. “It isn’t really that complicated. You have to fully and timely disclose and report the source of your contributions and the full reach of your expenditures.”

Motl has issued 19 rulings that revolve around allegations against the five candidates that involve illegal contributions from and candidate coordination with Western Tradition Partnership and its affiliates.

The nonprofit corporation, which later changed its name to American Tradition Partnership, has produced attack fliers against certain moderate legislative candidates in Montana since 2008 and has brought several legal challenges to the state’s campaign finance laws.

A state judge ruled last year that the group acted as a political committee - not the educational group it claimed to be - and must disclose its spending and donors. Since that ruling, a former attorney for the group has told the courts the group is no longer active.

Motl said he has not found a representative of the group to send the decisions, and WTP has not responded to any of the rulings.

That should be a warning for candidates to take a close look at groups that offer their assistance in this year’s campaigns, Motl said.

“It’s the candidates who are going to bear the primary obligation to pay the social debt for these actions,” he said. “I’m not certain the non-candidate actors are going to be around.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling allowed corporations to make independent expenditures in candidate elections, but it left in place a ban on corporate contributions to candidates. Any third-party expense coordinated with a candidate is considered an in-kind contribution and must be reported.

Thursday’s rulings say legislative candidates Joel Boniek of Livingston and Terry Bannan of Belgrade coordinated attack ads with and took unreported in-kind donations from WTP and its affiliated direct-mail service, Direct Mail and Communications Inc.

Bannan lost to Kelly Flynn of Townsend in the 2010 House District 68 Republican primary. Boniek lost to John Esp of Big Timber in the House District 61 Republican primary in 2010.

The candidates only partially paid for the costs of producing and sending out letters attributed to them or signed by them, and they paid nothing for the cost of writing, editing, laying out and other production services provided, Motl said.

That amounts to illegal coordination with a third-party corporation for an in-kind expense that was undisclosed, unreported and unattributed, Motl found.

WTP and other affiliates also sent letters and flyers that were timed with candidate letters that attacked Boniek and Bannan’s opponents. Motl ruled that those were coordinated, in-kind contributions that the candidates should have reported, but didn’t.

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