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An out-of-state super PAC that spent $126,752 supporting a trio of Republican legislative primary candidates in Montana this spring violated state campaign practice laws, according to a decision released late Friday by Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan.

The decision comes after a month-long investigation by Mangan’s office of a complaint filed against the Convention of States Political Fund (COSPF), and states that the organization failed to adequately disclose its spending on mailers and radio ads supporting the primary campaigns of Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, R-Fairfield, and first-time legislative candidate Wayne Rusk of Stevensville. Rusk and Fitzgerald told Montana Free Press for a previous story that they had no prior knowledge of the organization’s activities. Ellsworth did not respond to messages seeking comment. All three won their primary contests June 7.

COSPF mailers and radio ads in Montana touted the three candidates’ conservative positions on issues such as abortion and gun control. The organization itself is tied to a larger national movement aimed at convincing a majority of state legislatures to pursue a revision of the U.S. Constitution, and received the bulk of its funding during the 2022 primary season from two other political groups: Conservative Action for America, and the nonprofit Convention of States Action. The latter belongs to a category of political organizations known as “dark money” groups, in reference to the fact that they are not legally required to disclose their donors. COSPF did not respond to an email requesting comment, and messages left for Convention of States Action President Mark Meckler were not immediately returned.

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Details documented in Mangan’s decision shed new light on COSPF and its involvement in Montana’s most recent election. For starters, Mangan wrote that the organization did not meet the state’s definition of a nonresident political committee because it had failed to file its activity in its home state. COSPF had previously claimed — in a May 26 response to Mangan issued on its behalf by a Washington, D.C.-based law firm — that its home state was Michigan and its registration as a political committee there satisfied Montana’s requirements. However, based on the contact information that COSPF provided to Michigan officials, Mangan determined that the organization is actually headquartered in the District of Columbia and had not registered its activity with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance.

Mangan also noted that the group’s registration in Michigan, where disclosure dates are tailored around a state primary election held in August, did not preclude it from having to report its Montana expenditures to his office in a timely fashion.

“Montana’s committee reporting dates are tailored to the state’s primary (June 7, 2022) and general (November 8, 2022) election dates to provide transparency prior to each election,” Mangan wrote. “A nonresident committee such as [COSPF] participating in Montana’s elections cannot simply shop other jurisdictions and file reports disclosing Montana activity under that jurisdiction’s reporting calendar to avoid Montana’s campaign finance transparency requirements.” 

Even if COSPF had met the criteria for a nonresident political committee, Mangan found that the draft finance report from Michigan it submitted to his office documenting its Montana expenditures did not satisfy Montana’s itemized disclosure requirements. For example, he wrote, none of the expenditures listed in the report made mention of radio ads, on which the organization spent more than $47,000.

“Similarly,” Mangan wrote, “while [COSPF] took full responsibility for financing 18 mailers supporting candidates Rusk, Ellsworth, and Fitzgerald, no single expenditure on the draft Michigan reports make any reference to mailers.”

As for the allegation at the center of the original complaint — that COSPF did not include required “paid for by” language on its mailers — Mangan also found the organization in violation of Montana law. He directed COSPF to register with his office and file the necessary reports for its 2022 primary activity within five days of receiving his decision, and instructed the group to comply with all Montana laws regarding any future political activity. As is typical with campaign finance violations, Mangan referred the matter to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney, and if prosecution is waived, Mangan will either negotiate a civil fine with COSPF or pursue legal action.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...