- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A conservative nonprofit group broke Montana campaign laws in 2012 when it failed to disclose spending on campaign advertisements, the commissioner of political practices said.

Issue-focused ads would not have required reporting, Commissioner Jonathan Motl said. But the Montana Growth Network paid for ads that advocated for and against candidates while passing them off as issue-focused.

Motl forwarded his findings Friday to prosecutors, who can choose whether to pursue a case against the Montana Growth Network. If they don’t, Motl will likely negotiate a settlement with the organization.

“The decision shows an insult to reporting and disclosure in Montana,” Motl told Lee Newspapers of Montana. “It is an insult because of the large amount of money, mostly undisclosed, from a few people and spent on all things a Montana Supreme Court race.”

The Montana Growth Network, which was run by former state Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, was registered as a tax-exempt issue-advocacy group not required to report its spending or donors. But it was a significant player in the 2012 elections, Motl said in his findings.

The group raised $878,000 from 13 donors during the election cycle, and made $49,000 in express advocacy independent expenditures, spending which requires disclosure to the state.

The Montana Growth Network also paid $476,000 to vendors, including to a conservative group that Motl previously said provided unreported campaign services to candidates, and $174,000 to lawyers and consultants, including Priest.

One of the races it was involved in was the Supreme Court election between Laurie McKinnon, Ed Sheehy and Elizabeth Best. McKinnon was elected in November 2012.

The group spent money on flyers supporting McKinnon and opposing Sheehy and Best. A radio ad called for listeners to sign a petition on Montana Growth Network’s website to “tell activists like Ed Sheehy that you want a fair and impartial Supreme Court that will apply our laws. Because our judges need to leave their activist agendas at the door.”

Motl wrote the ads were advocacy because Sheehy was their focus, and it was not a public policy issue as the Montana Growth Network claimed.

The group filed late as a political committee that can make independent expenditures for or against candidates, Motl said. Its reports to the commissioner contained missing or erroneous information, he added.

Attorney Chris Gallus, who represented the group, told The Great Falls Tribune that “Montana laws are complex, but we made a painstaking effort to follow all of the laws every step along the way.”

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