State Sen. Brad Hamlett, D-Cascade, has filed a complaint against a political group run by Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, contending it sent fliers supporting his opponent without listing its treasurer as the law requires.
Hamlett filed the complaint with the Montana political practices commissioner’s office Friday against the Montana Growth Network of Red Lodge. Priest is the group’s director and treasurer.
In his complaint, Hamlett said the network sent out campaign materials advocating the election of his opponent, Wendy McKamey, but failed to include the name of the group’s treasurer on the disclaimer, as required by law.
In reviewing the files, Hamlett said Montana Growth Network also appeared to engage in “some late and misreporting” of its finances to the state political practices commissioner’s office.
“My constituents have stated that there was more than just one piece advocating for my opponent’s candidacy that does not appear to have been reported,” Hamlett said in the complaint.
The Montana Growth Network, which doesn’t disclose its donors, is a Montana-based 501(c)(4) organization. In federal tax filings, the group described itself as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit grassroots effort to provide business owners and employees with helpful and accurate information about public policy impacts on Montana’s businesses.”
Hamlett said he stays out of other senators’ political races and believes that’s a practice other senators should follow, since they need to work together in the Legislature. He criticized the Montana Growth Network’s actions in legislative races.
“They have an out-of-state driven agenda to take over Montana,” he said. “It’s insulting and it’s dangerous to all Montana.”
Hamlett said he faced two sets of opponents in his 2008 and 2012 elections: “the opponent on the ballot and the out-of-state people with the money and we can’t find out where they got it.”
In response, Priest said he hadn’t read the complaint yet, but Montana Growth Network takes campaign finance laws very seriously.
“From the very beginning, we’ve been careful and cautious,” Priest said.
The attorney for Montana Growth Network, Chris Gallus of Helena, said there are distinctions between issue and express advocacy in campaign materials.
“Throughout the process, we’ve been careful in making that distinction,” Gallus said. “We’ve worked with the commissioner’s office.”
The Montana Growth Network was active in some 2012 legislative races, but also in the campaign for the open seat on the state Supreme Court.
Last fall, the Montana Growth Network reported spending $7,500 on behalf of five Senate candidates, including McKamey, Hamlett’s opponent.
It also ran radio ads and sent mailers attacking unsuccessful Supreme Court candidate Ed Sheehy of Missoula as an “activist” who tried to void the death penalty when he represented an accused killer in Kalispell in 2011.
Sheehy, a public defender, called on his opponent, District Judge Laurie McKinnon of Choteau to denounce the ads. McKinnon, who ultimately won the race, did so.
In May 2012, the Montana Growth Network spent nearly $41,685 on mailers portraying McKinnon as nonpartisan and highlighting campaign donations made to Democratic candidates by the two other Supreme Court candidates, Sheehy and Elizabeth Best of Great Falls.