Montana Commissioner of Political Practices

An out-of-state political organization found to have violated Montana campaign finance law continues to face questions about its activity in three Republican legislative races during the 2022 primary election, even as it pursues legal action against the state’s top political practices enforcer.

Last month, the national political watchdog nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy filed a campaign practices complaint against the Convention of States Political Fund, a Michigan-based super PAC that spent more than $126,000 on political flyers and radio ads in Montana earlier this year. The complaint alleges that CSPF knowingly received “straw-donor contributions” from a separate political nonprofit — Conservative Action for America — created by CSPF’s founder, Richard Johnson. Since Conservative Action for America is not required to disclose its donors, the Center for Media and Democracy claims the network violates Montana law by concealing the true source of funding used to influence state elections.

Both Conservative Action for America and Johnson are subjects of the complaint as well. 

This is the second time this year that CSPF’s actions have been investigated by Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan. A separate complaint filed in May accused the super PAC of failing to include adequate “paid for by” information on a mailer supporting Republican Wayne Rusk’s primary campaign in Ravalli County. Mangan’s investigation quickly expanded to include CSPF’s spending in support of Republican primary incumbents Rep. Ross Fitzgerald of Fairfield and Sen. Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton. Reporting by Montana Free Press revealed that CSPF also invested in radio ads promoting the three candidates, and Rusk and Fitzgerald claimed to be unaware of the super PAC’s activity until flyers supporting their campaigns began to appear.

Mangan issued a decision in June that CSPF, which is registered as a political committee in Michigan, violated Montana campaign practice law by not filing with the state and publicly disclosing its spending ahead of the June 7 primary election.

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Convention of States group violated campaign law

Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan found that an out-of-state conservative group violated Montana campaign laws by failing to disclose spending in three Republican legislative primaries this year. He also determined that the group was not, in fact, based in Michigan as it claimed.

The new complaint builds on Mangan’s initial findings, portraying the super PAC’s actions as an intentional effort to use dark money to influence Republican primary races in Montana and elsewhere. The Center for Media and Democracy claims that Johnson established Conservative Action for America in Arizona using a virtual office address and directed $356,000 from the nonprofit to CSPF to fund the latter’s activity. Center for Media and Democracy Executive Director Arn Pearson told MTFP this month that his organization plans to file similar complaints in North Carolina, another state where CSPF reported making independent expenditures this year, and Idaho, home of one of CSPF’s three reported contributors, the political committee Conservative Action for Idaho. The center also alleged, in a complaint to the Arizona Corporations Commission, that Conservative Action for America used a fake address to register as a nonprofit there. Pearson said that complaint has since been re-filed with the Arizona attorney general.

The Convention of States Political Fund did not respond to emails seeking comment for this story or two previous MTFP articles. However, Washington, D.C.-based law firm Godfrey & Khan did issue a response to the Center for Media and Democracy’s Montana complaint on CSPF’s behalf last month. The firm’s letter disputed the allegations against its clients, arguing that both CSPF and Conservative Action for America have adhered to Montana law and operated within their legal rights.

“Given the complete lack of facts supporting any of the elements of the alleged violation, the

complaint should be dismissed as frivolous,” the letter read, maintaining that at no time has CSPF accepted a contribution that violates Montana law.

CSPF’s stated mission is to support a call for a convention of state legislatures to amend the U.S. Constitution — a process outlined in Article V of the U.S. Constitution. Advocates of such a convention include the American Legislative Exchange Council and several prominent conservative organizations, which view it as an opportunity to bypass a deadlocked U.S. Congress and amend the country’s founding document to impose a variety of checks on federal power, including term limits for congressional officers and government officials. But the movement continues to struggle for majority traction among Republicans nationally, and routine efforts toward a supporting resolution in the Montana Legislature have made it out of committee only once in the past decade.

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Meanwhile, CSPF is challenging Mangan’s earlier decision in U.S. District Court in Missoula, arguing that it made repeated efforts to comply with state requirements governing nonresident political committees. In its initial filing with the court, CSPF attorneys alleged that the requirements imposed on the super PAC are “vague” and not interpreted consistently. The filing claimed that CSPF spoke with an employee in Mangan’s office prior to any spending in Montana and was informed it would be required to disclose its primary election activity on July 25 in accordance with the disclosure deadline of its home state, Michigan. Only after the first complaint was filed with Mangan’s office, the filing continues, was the super PAC told it would be required to disclose its activity in late May, ahead of Montana’s primary election.

CSPF further argued that Mangan’s decision to impose “ruinous penalties” for its violations prompted the super PAC to halt any additional independent expenditures during the 2022 election, “postponing its First Amendment-protected political speech.” It asked the court to block Mangan from further enforcing nonresident political committee requirements against it.

In a responding brief, the state attorney representing Mangan claimed there is no evidence of the purported call by CSPF to Mangan’s office, and said none of Mangan’s staff remembers any such exchange. The response didn’t mention how much CSPF might be facing in penalties, but did state that had the super PAC heeded the state’s advice to disclose its activity by May 30, the maximum penalty it would have faced was $500. Mangan’s attorney maintained the position that nonresident committees are required to disclose their political activity with the same level of detail and on the same timeline as Montana-based committees.

“This case is really a dispute over which calendar dictates when a political committee must report and disclose its expenditures and contributions in Montana’s elections: Michigan’s or Montana’s,” the brief read. “The state did not tolerate plaintiff’s attempt to avoid Montana’s statutory calendar reporting requirements, and neither should this court.”

The case is scheduled for trial in Missoula on Sept. 13.

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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...