- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 1, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A national organization that seeks to elect conservative judges blatantly violated state law by not reporting $268,000 that was used for attack ads against a Montana Supreme Court candidate, the state’s campaign finance regulator said Tuesday.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl gave the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative until 3 p.m. Wednesday to register and file a campaign finance report detailing where the money came from.

“I fully expect them to comply,” Motl said. “If they don’t, we have options available.” Those options include having a judge issue an order for the organization to show cause.

RSLC spokeswoman Ellie Hockenbury said in a written statement that the organization will work with Motl’s office to comply with “the commissioner’s request and the letter and spirit of the law.”

Motl’s decision is the latest development in the highly contentious race between District Judge Dirk Sandefur of Great Falls and University of Montana adjunct law professor Kristen Juras for an open seat on the state’s highest court. The nonpartisan race has seen a flood of outside money with partisan interests, including the RSLC cash that helps Juras and about $60,000 from the state Democratic Party, which is backing Sandefur.

The RSLC money went to a political committee called Stop Set ‘Em Free Sandefur, which used the cash to create a website, ad and mailers portraying Sandefur soft on crime. The anti-Sandefur organization reported in its campaign finance filings that the source of the money was the RSLC’s Montana-registered political committee.

However, that committee did not disclose any spending in that amount, prompting a complaint by the executive director of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, which backs Sandefur.

Motl said he talked to the RSLC’s attorney, who told Motl that the money actually came from a different RSLC-affiliated group that is registered with the IRS as a tax-exempt 527 organization and is therefore not regulated by any campaign practice laws.

Motl, in the decision, called that position “foolhardy” and said the group’s IRS status does not exempt it from registering as a political committee when it is active in a Montana election.

“It is hard to fathom the logic of this attempt to avoid Montana reporting and disclosure laws,” Motl wrote in the decision.

Hockenbury, the RSLC spokeswoman, said her organization makes its disclosures at the federal level.

“Since its inception in 2002, RSLC has acted with the highest respect for transparency by disclosing all donors and expenses publicly to the IRS where it is available online to anyone who wishes to view our activity,” Hockenbury said.

The commissioner ordered the group to report and disclose the $268,000 it received in contributions and expenditures. He also ordered the anti-Sandefur political committee and the RSLC’s Montana political committee to update their filings.

Campaign violations are usually resolved through a cash settlement negotiated by the commissioner’s office and the violator, but they can go to court if a settlement is not reached.


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