The state’s political practices commissioner Friday found that Republican Ken Miller’s campaign for governor violated six state campaign finance laws and could face up to $45,000 in fines.
Miller, locked in a seven-way Republican primary that culminates with Tuesday’s election, denounced the commissioner’s findings as politically motivated. He called it a “brazen” attempt “to damage a surging Miller for Governor campaign just four days before the primary.”
Political Practices Commissioner Jim Murry said his office found sufficient evidence to conclude the campaign broke state laws and regulations by taking contributions over the limit and accepting anonymous donations. Murry also said the campaign broke the law when Miller stayed 21 days at no charge at a corporate-owned motel in Missoula during the campaign.
Under state law, Miller could be fined $500 per violation, or up to three times the amount of the illegal contributions or expenditures, whichever is greater.
Murry’s office said the Miller campaign had illegal contributions and expenses estimated at $15,000. Murry said the campaign had $11, 000 in money improperly accounted for and $4,000 in campaign checks improperly written by Miller and his wife, Peggy, when they were not designated as campaign treasurers.
Murry’s findings support allegations filed in April by Miller’s former chief fundraiser, Kelly Bishop of Polson.
The findings now go to the Yellowstone County attorney’s office, which has 30 days to decide whether to pursue civil penalties against the Laurel-based campaign. If the attorney refuses to take the case, it goes back to Murry’s office, which will try to negotiate a settlement. If that fails, the office will file a civil action in district court.
Miller blasted Murry, accusing him of being “still very much a Democratic Party operative.” He noted Murry previously was executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO and, prior to his appointment as commissioner by Gov. Brian Schweitzer earlier this year, had been treasurer of the governor’s campaign organization.
After “an exhaustive and painstaking review,” all Murry’s office came up with was “a couple of disputed procedural issues,” which have since been corrected, Miller said. None was substantial, he said.
“The extraordinary timing of their release, just four days before primary election day, is a brazen yet anticipated effort to derail the momentum of the Miller/(Bill) Gallagher primary campaign,” Miller said. “The continued usage of this COPP office for character assassination furthers shows the desperate need for reform of that office.”
When Bishop’s complaint was filed in April, Murry pledged then to issue a decision before the primary.
Murry found sufficient evidence that Miller’s campaign violated state law and regulations by:
n Accepting excess contributions. In some cases, the Miller campaign received donations exceeding the $630-per-contributor limit for the primary. Without getting the necessary approval from donors, the campaign rolled the money into the general election account. A donor can give up to $630 to a governor candidate in the primary and $630 more for the general election.
The campaign didn’t seek permission from these donors until after Bishop filed her complaint and the state investigation was launched, the findings said.
• Failing to report certain contributions.
• Failing to report certain expenditures. The campaign failed to report $905 in wages paid to an employee on its original campaign finance report in April. It was correct in an amended report last month.
• Accepting anonymous contributions. It received one $50 anonymous donation in 2011 and six anonymous contributions totaling $502 earlier this year. The political practices office notified Miller’s campaign in December and January that it had to either identify a donor for the anonymous contribution or donate that money to a nonprofit group. On May 7, the campaign wrote a check for a $200 donation to a Laurel nonprofit group.
• Accepting direct contributions from a corporation. Miller received motel rooms free of charge from the Super 8 Motel in Missoula on 21 nights. The motel is owned by a corporation named A M S Ranch Inc. in Conrad.
Sonya Quackenbush, one of the owners, said if she had charged Miller, she would have charged him the “regular customer” rate of $40 per night, plus tax. Asked what the “fair market value” of those contributions, she said the rates change all the time and would be difficult to calculate.
However, the political practices office, using rates for the motel listed on the Internet, calculated the fair market value of the rooms “comped” to Miller at $1,408, not including taxes, about $67 per night.
• Making expenditures by persons other than appointed campaign treasurer or authorized campaign treasurer. Miller and his wife, Peggy, were the authorized signatories on the campaign account, even though neither was designated a treasurer or deputy treasurer prior to Bishop’s complaint.
In addition, the political practices office found that Quackenbush, an owner of the Missoula motel, made an illegal corporate contribution directly to Miller by letting him stay there at no charge.
The commissioner’s investigation noted Miller is not an inexperienced candidate. He ran for governor in 2004, was state Republican Party chairman in 2001-2004 and was twice elected to the Montana Senate in the 1990s.
The Millers maintained control of the campaign checkbook, invoices and receipts and wouldn’t give them to the treasurer, Patsy Guenthner, “thereby preventing her from having access to relevant information and severely hampering her ability to perform her duties as treasurer,” the findings said.
Bishop said she feels vindicated by the commissioner’s findings.
“I feel like my allegations were obviously all true,” Bishop said. “He failed to represent his campaign, the Republican Party, the tea party and his supporters by his actions of not upholding the law following proper campaign finance rules.”