While a “significant amount of money” was spent by an out-of-state political consulting firm to gather enough signatures to qualify the Montana Green Party to appear on the ballot this fall, it’s still unclear who ultimately paid for the effort.
The state Commissioner of Political Practices on Friday dismissed, in part, a complaint filed by the Montana Democratic Party earlier this year. The complaint alleged that Advanced Micro Targeting, which is based in Nevada, was paid to gather signatures and the effort was not reported as required by state campaign finance laws.
The commissioner found the political consulting firm was not required to report its spending because it's not required to declare itself as a political committee. That's because it's not organized to support or oppose a candidate or petition for nomination and its spending did not support or oppose a candidate or ballot issue, the commissioner found.
The commissioner is, however, ordering the Montana Green Party to report the value of the signature gathering effort as an in-kind donation by Aug. 28, and the group could be subject to fines for not previously reporting it.
“Given Montana’s long history of ensuring clean, fair, and transparent campaigns, it should not take a complaint to acknowledge and share with our citizens that a significant amount of money was spent in a paid, organized signature gathering effort,” Commissioner Jeff Mangan said. “To date, the (commissioner’s office) cannot fully determine who paid for this effort and the amount of money that was spent. I find that the responsibility for reporting this vital information lies with the Montana Green Party and have ordered them to properly report and disclose.”
Danielle Breck, the coordinator for the Montana Green Party, said Friday evening she was frustrated with the situation and will try to work with the commissioner, but the party has no knowledge of any work done by Advanced Micro Targeting and has had no contact with the firm.
"He seems to want us to disclose this expenditure we had no knowledge of, so I don't know how we do that. I don't know how we move forward," Breck said.
Breck said she contacted Mangan for guidance. She added her focus is on the people who signed petitions to get the Green Party on the ballot.
"It's very frustrating. We've seen in Montana for decades where the two mainstream parties like to use third parties as their tools in their political game. It's hard to deal with, but we do have a responsibility to the 10,000 Montanans who signed in good faith a petition regardless of who was collecting those signatures," Breck said.
The attorney that sent a letter on behalf of Advanced Micro Targeting did not respond to a message.
Montana Democratic Party executive director Nancy Keenan said Friday that the party still needs to know who paid for Advanced Micro Targeting's work.
"This ruling proves what we have known all along: that an out-of-state, dark money group tried to interfere in Montana's elections. Advanced Micro Targeting must immediately tell Montanans who paid them and how much money was spent in their attempt to mess with our democracy."
Even though it qualified for the ballot in March, the Montana Green Party may not appear on the ballot this fall. That’s because of a separate court case filed by Montana Democrats against the Secretary of State’s Office and the Montana Green Party that questioned the validity of some signatures used to qualify.
On July 9, state District Court Judge James Reynolds found enough signatures invalid and said the Montana Green Party should be removed from the ballot. Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has appealed the order to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.
Earlier this year, on the last day possible, the Montana Green Party qualified to run candidates in this year's midterms by submitting enough signatures gathered by people around the state. A handful of Green Party candidates filed, including two seeking to oust U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat who is running for his third term. One Green Party candidate is a longtime party member and advanced past the primary; the other had previously been on the state Republican Party's payroll.
A Green Party candidate could have potentially pulled more liberal votes away from Tester, whose race against Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale is expected to be close.
In a letter to COPP that was part of the investigation, Advanced Micro Targeting admitted it paid two employees to gather 9,000 signatures over 19 days to qualify the Montana Green Party to run candidates in this fall’s election.
The Montana Green Party submitted a total of 10,160 signatures, according to the commissioner, and 7,389 were certified as valid by the Montana Secretary of State.
Advanced Micro Targeted worked in the state in 2015 to help qualify Marsy's Law for the ballot. The company was paid $462,000.
“It is likely a significant amount of money was expended in an effort to place the Montana Green Party on the ballot,” Mangan wrote in his decision. “Montana citizens expect transparency in all political practices, yet no one has stepped forward to simply report the amount of money spent in this signature gathering process. We do know that it involved a political consulting firm, who employed 13 paid signature gatherers over the course of 19 days in the communities of Missoula, Helena, Great Falls and Billings.”
In earlier signature gathering efforts, the Montana Green Party was only able to gather about 700 signatures between January 2017 and March 2017. That included an earlier attempt to qualify the Green Party to appear on the ballot for a special U.S. House election in May 2017.
In the letter Advanced Micro Targeting sent to COPP, it did not dispute its involvement but also did not say how much money it paid employees Cody Pope and Garrett Laubach to collect “over 9,000 signatures over the course of 19 days” to help the Montana Green Party qualify for the ballot.
The letter was sent by Anita Milanovich with the Bopp Law Firm, which has argued against the state’s campaign finance laws in court before, including taking the American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock to the U.S. Supreme Court.