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Tribes respond to political complaint

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HELENA – A public relations firm hired by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to sway public opinion about a tribal water compact did help form a grassroots lobbying group related to the compact, but the expenditures the tribal government made to do so were exempted from lobbying reports because they are considered “grassroots,” according to the response to a complaint filed with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices alleges. 

The May 18 response filed by the Tribes refutes claims made by Flathead County Republican Central Committee Chairman Jayson Peters, who issued a formal complaint in May that said grassroots group Farmers and Ranchers for Montana was allegedly formed by the Tribes, though no lobbying paperwork about the group was filed. 

The Tribes, in their response say that high-powered Washington firm Mercury Public Affairs was involved in creating Farmers and Ranchers for Montana, but that they followed state rules. 

“Mr. Peters’ complaint must fail,” tribal attorneys wrote in the response. “The Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP) has affirmatively stated in both the administrative rules and a ‘frequently asked questions’ sheet published on his website, that grassroots lobbying is not reportable. Accordingly, changing that course and enforcing any purported violation of (Montana Code) 5-7-208 could potentially violate the Tribes’ due process rights.” 

Farmers and Ranchers for Montana worked to inform the public about the water compact, but did not target legislators, the response says. 

“Part of FARM’s work included sending mailers around the state to generate support for the water compact,” the tribal response says. “The mailers and other ads suggested that individuals contact their legislators. The mailers, though, did not advise the recipient of the name of the individual’s legislator, the individual’s senate or house district, or advise the individual what she or he should say. The mailers also did not include any preaddressed postcard or other communication that the recipient could sign and mail to his or her legislator. Instead they simply stated some variation of ‘Your representative needs to hear your voice: Call 406-444-4800.’ The phone number is that of the Legislative Information Desk.”

The Commissioner of Political practices is reviewing the complaint, but regardless of the outcome Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl said his staff will spend the summer trying to clarify the lobbying rules, which are somewhat ambiguous. 

The water compact is currently awaiting approval from the United States Congress and tribal government, but it could take years for final passage.

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