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New complaint filed against Tribes in water compact lobbying

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HELENA – In a complaint that reads almost like a point-counterpoint summary to documents filed in a grievance currently under review, two people in Gallatin County have asked the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices to determine whether or not the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes broke state lobbying laws during the recent passage of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact. 

Terry Threlkeld and Walter Bridges filed a complaint June 24 that alleges the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes should have disclosed any funding to a group called Farmers and Ranchers for Montana, a grassroots group that rallied and advertised in support of the water compact during the 2015 legislative session. 

The water compact would finalize the tribes’ water claims through a three-way settlement between the state, tribal and federal government. It would also create a new framework for future water appropriations on the Flathead Reservation and provide for betterment of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project. The highly controversial compact is now pending federal and tribal approval. 

When another similar complaint was filed in May by Flathead County Republican Central Committee Chairman Jayson Peters, he loosely tied Farmers and Ranchers to Montana, but did not indicate where individual legislators were lobbied. 

The Tribes honed in on this fact in their response to the original complaint, made May 18. 

“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 new complaint filed by the Gallatin County men claims individual legislators were targeted. 

“It directly lobbied legislators by sending them numerous emails claiming that the water compact enjoyed widespread public support,” the new complaint claims. 

It provides several exhibits where emails were sent from Farmers and Ranchers of Montana directly to legislators by the group’s spokeswoman and other representatives. Whether or not those are classified as “grassroots” lobbying is in question. The Tribes claim Farmers and Ranchers for Montana should be classified as a grassroots organization, exempt from lobbying reports. 

“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.” 

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said after the original complaint was made that his office is spending this summer clarifying the grassroots lobbying regulations, because they are so murky. He has not issued an opinion in the original case as of press time. 

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