Scales of justice

BOZEMAN — U.S. Senate candidate Troy Downing paid non-resident taxes and referred to California as "home" on social media during the same period when authorities allege he illegally purchased Montana resident hunting or fishing licenses, according to an investigation.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks investigation began in December 2013 when the Department of Revenue notified wardens that Downing was believed to have illegally purchased resident licenses, according to The Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

The Republican has pleaded not guilty to nine misdemeanor violations in a case pending in state District Court in Gallatin County.

If he's found guilty, the businessman from Big Sky likely would be exposed to criticism from opponents as an out-of-state interloper. His campaign said Tuesday that Downing was a full-time Montana resident throughout the period at issue.

Downing filed income taxes as a non-resident during at least two years when he bought resident hunting or fishing licenses, 2013 and 2014, according to an affidavit in a search warrant application submitted by a state game warden in April.

He paid his taxes as a full-year Montana resident in 2015, the affidavit said.

Authorities say Downing illegally bought licenses each year from 2011 to 2016, illegally loaned an elk license to another hunter, and helped his adult son obtain a 2015 Montana resident license even though the son had a California driver's license.

A person must live in Montana for 180 days prior to buying a resident hunting and fishing license. The person also must register a vehicle in Montana, file state income tax returns as a resident and not possess or apply for any residential hunting, fishing or trapping privileges in another state.

Investigators characterized Downing's time in Montana as "seasonal at best" based on postings to a personal blog titled "Troy's World-Random Rants and Related Run-On Retarded Rhetoric," in which Downing mentioned spending time with family in his Montana vacation home and returning home to California.

He's among at least five Republicans seeking to challenge Democratic Sen. Jon Tester next fall. Downing's campaign chair is Lola Zinke, wife of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Montana congressman. The candidate tweeted a photo of himself last week posing with two of President Donald Trump's sons, Eric and Donald Jr., at what his campaign said was a private reception in the Judith Basin area during a hunting trip by the Trumps.

Campaign manager Kevin Gardner told The Associated Press that Downing has been a full-time Montana resident since 2009. It "makes no sense" for Downing to skirt the law, Gardner said, to avoid paying non-resident license fees at the same time he was paying tens of thousands of dollars to support Montana fishing trips for veterans.

"We also cannot fathom the corruption of the judicial system that is taking place where details of this case are being leaked to the press before Troy is being afforded due process in the court of law," Gardner said in an emailed statement. He added that the state wildlife agency was on a "witch hunt" against the candidate.

The warrant cited by the Chronicle newspaper had been unsealed by Judge John Brown last month at the request of the County Attorney's office, which asked for the document to be made public after Downing was charged in July.

Gardner declined to elaborate on what corruption might have taken place.

But he suggested it was part of an orchestrated attack by Tester allies and pointed out that Brown was appointed in 2005 by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat. Gardner declined to provide tax records or other documents to corroborate the claim that Downing has been in Montana full time since 2009.

Downing still has property in California, Gardner said.

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