Montana Commissioner of Political Practices office
The office of the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. Credit: Eliza Wiley/MTFP

The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices found this week that a Republican candidate for House District 82 in Helena tried to pay vendors with bad checks and misreported accrued debts as expenditures, referring the matter to the Lewis and Clark County attorney for possible prosecution. 

Alden Tonkay, who until mid-July served as communications director for the Montana Republican Party, misreported a minimum of $2,264 in debts, Commissioner Jeff Mangan found. Those debts stemmed from non-payment to Helena sign-making and catering companies. 

Tonkay repeatedly told the commissioner’s office he would send a response to the complaint as well as a full accounting of his campaign finances, but never delivered, according to Mangan’s decision. 

When the office wrote Tonkay seeking a response, it found the Helena P.O. Box associated with his campaign to be inactive. What information the commissioner’s office could gather on Tonkay’s contact information suggests he no longer lives in the district. One of the checks Tonkay attempted to pay a vendor with listed an address in Three Forks different from both the physical and mailing addresses recorded in his statement of candidacy. 

“Candidate Tonkay has deceived both his campaign contributors and Montana citizens as to the accuracy and disposition of the Tonkay Campaign Treasury,” the commissioner wrote. 

Signs Now Helena filed the initial complaint in August. Tonkay, according to information provided to the commissioner’s office, gave the company a check for $1,565 in May that was returned by the bank with a notice of insufficient funds. Tonkay apologized and repeatedly promised to send a new check, often excusing the delay by saying he was out of town. In texts to the company’s owner, Trevor Parrish, Tonkay said he was working extra jobs and selling personal belongings to pay the debt, as his campaign funds were frozen. At one point, he sent a picture of fanned-out cash with a tracking number, saying the money was on the way. The funds were never delivered. 

The commissioner found Tonkay had similarly failed to pay Helena’s Chili O’Brien’s Catering for the company’s work at a campaign meet-and-greet. He made one payment of $180, but still owed $540. 

Tonkay, meanwhile, reported on his campaign finance paperwork that he had paid his vendors and did not list his debt, appearing to “purposely report false information indicating expenditures of contributor’s campaign donations on reportable campaign expenditures,” Mangan found.

The money, as of the Oct. 7 decision, remains unaccounted for, the report says. Tonkay has still not filed a formal response with the commissioner, and also failed to report his campaign’s September expenditures. 

Tonkay, reached by phone Friday, said he would not have a statement ready by Montana Free Press’ publication deadline, since he was traveling, but claimed to have paid his debt Friday morning. MTFP reached out to Signs Now Friday, but was unable to confirm Tonkay’s claim by publication.

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Mangan’s office issued a finding justifying civil fines or prosecution and referred the matter to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney. In most cases, the report notes, the county attorney waives prosecution back to the commissioner’s office for consideration, where most matters are ultimately resolved by a payment of fines. 

Tonkay is challenging Democratic Rep. Mary Caferro. In March, he filed a political practices complaint against Caferro alleging she paid — but failed to report — a $15 candidate filing fee. Caferro filed an amended report including the fee after hearing from the commissioner’s office.

“While candidate Caferro did fail to timely disclose her payment of the candidate filing fee on campaign finance reports filed with the COPP, this action did not deprive the public the knowledge of the candidate’s filing fee,” Mangan wrote. “As candidate Caferro has amended the campaign finance report disclosing the filing fee as required, no further enforcement action in this matter will be taken.”

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Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.