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Commissioner of Political Practices office

The sign of the Commissioner of Political Practices office in Helena is shown.

In the midst of this year’s midterms, the state Commissioner of Political Practices Office has worked through a slew of campaign finance complaints — all targeting statewide Democratic legislative campaigns from the 2016 election cycle.

Over the last year, Republican consultant Jake Eaton has filed 18 complaints against Democrats who ran for the Montana Legislature two years ago. And Eaton said Friday he’s not done yet.

Eaton's complaints allege a lack of sufficient detail in how candidates from that year spent money.

That includes items as small as not properly explaining what was purchased for 12 cents and described only as "photocopies" at a FedEx office. Other expenditures were much larger, such the $1,307 one candidate spent for "mailing and shipping of mailers and palm cards."

Two pieces of Montana campaign finance history help lay the scene for Eaton's complaints.

First, the 2015 Legislature passed the Disclose Act, a sweeping change to Montana's campaign finance laws. The act, in part, required candidates and committees to describe in "sufficient detail" any expenditures made to consultants, ad agencies, polling firms or anyone that provides services.

Second, during the 2016 cycle the Montana Democratic Party filed a complaint saying the Montana Republican Leadership Campaign Committee did not provide "sufficient detail" for its expenses.

That included things like an $8,073 payment to Eaton's Political Company described only as "consulting, fundraising letter and reimbursement."

That year then-Commissioner Jonathan Motl found the Republican group in the wrong, but said he wouldn't impose any punishments. He said because this was the first time candidates and committees had to follow the new rules, it was likely a lot of people and groups were in the same boat as the Republican committee.

Motl gave the group a pass if they filed amended reports with the required detail. But the Republican group hadn't done so by July 2017. So Jeff Mangan, who took over as commissioner earlier that year, issued a decision finding the group in violation of finance rules.

On Friday, Eaton called the rules put in place under the Disclose Act “terrible rules,” but said if they were the law of the land he wanted to make sure everyone followed them.

"They didn’t follow the rules in the next election that they just put in place," Eaton said. "I do think it’s important these people be held accountable to the rules they just put in place."

State Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, was the subject of one of Eaton's first complaints. The complaint filed June 4 took issue with descriptions like "postcard stamps for communicating with voters" for $34 and "mailing services for six card mailings" for a $2,154 expenditure, saying it was not detailed enough.

Mangan dismissed the complaint on the principle of excusable neglect, which is what the past commissioner did — basically saying while Dunwell's reports did not have sufficient detail, it was likely most other candidates had the same problem because of the newness of the rule.

During Mangan's investigation, Dunwell provided the required expenditure detail.

Dunwell said Friday she thinks Eaton's complaints are a distraction from the commissioner's work and called them "frivolous."

“I think it takes our eyes of the prize, which is responsible, ethical campaign finance practices,” Dunwell said. “I think it also puts an extraordinary unnecessary burden on the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices.”

Dunwell said the office, which in past years has had an annual cost to operate of between $480,000-$676,500 and is often the target of budget cuts, is already under-resourced. Dunwell questioned what other violations could slip by while the commissioner worked through the 2016 complaints.

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“What is the value of knowing how many thank-you cards were in a package? Were there 12 or where there 15?” Dunwell said. “Were they full-price stamps or postcard stamps? Anybody reading a report could do the math and frankly is it relevant to what is actually required, which is responsible, ethical campaign practices?”

When the 2016 reports were originally filled out electronically, Dunwell said there was a limit on the number of characters allowed. When she filed amended reports to meet the detail requirement, she created a separate document that was attached to have enough space.

“There wasn’t enough physical room to comply,” Dunwell said.

Eaton countered the complaints are necessary. On June 18, Mangan issued a letter related to Eaton's complaints. He urged the parties to contact the commissioner's office and allow staff to reach out to candidates to correct reports instead of filing formal complaints, which are time-consuming to investigate. Eaton filed 11 complaints after the letter was sent.

“As far as not filing complaints, then why do we have these rules?” Eaton said. “What we’ve found is a tremendous number of violations from these same Democrats that voted for these rules in the first place."

Eaton stressed while the reports were dismissed, Mangan did find the then-candidates in violation. Some candidates cleared up the problems as Mangan investigated the complaint and those who didn't were given about three months from the decision to file amended reports with the required information. Those start coming due later this month.

Eaton does he doesn’t necessarily agree with Mangan’s approach to dismiss the complaints and give legislators time to refile amended reports, but said he applauds that Mangan is “holding everyone to the same standard.”

Eaton claimed every incumbent Democrat he’s looked at so far has had some form of violation. A few complaints also produced findings of late filings, which were not dismissed.

As commissioner, Mangan has focused on being proactive through education on how to properly file reports. The office is also working with candidates to make sure any deficiencies are caught early and fixed with amended reports before this year's election.

Eaton called that a “real positive step forward.”

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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