Federal judge says Montana campaign rules apply to out-of-state super PAC
U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy says Convention of States super PAC should have followed Montana reporting requirements during 2022 Republican legislative primaries.
Eliza Wiley/MTFP Photo
News from Alex Sakarissen Montana Free Press
MONTANA — A federal judge in Missoula last week resolved a recent legal dispute between an out-of-state super PAC and Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan, ruling that Mangan’s application of state disclosure requirements to the group was constitutional.
The order, issued Oct. 6 by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy, stems from a series of political fliers and radio ads distributed by the Convention of States Political Fund (CSPF) in support of three Republican legislative candidates in Montana’s 2022 primary. Mangan investigated the super PAC in response to a citizen complaint and found it had violated campaign practice laws by failing to adequately disclose its in-state activity with his office.
CSPF challenged that decision in a civil lawsuit against Mangan in July, arguing that Montana’s disclosure rules for nonresident political committees are “vague” and in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The super PAC further claimed that it was initially directed by an unnamed member of Mangan’s staff to file in accordance with the disclosure deadlines in its home state of Michigan. Mangan’s attorneys refuted that claim in court, stating that no member of his staff had memory of such a conversation and emphasizing that Michigan’s disclosure deadlines do not line up with Montana’s election calendar in a way that ensures transparency for voters.
Molloy echoed the latter point in his ruling, writing that as a result of CSPF following Michigan’s deadlines rather than Montana’s, “the public was not informed of the circumstances surrounding the candidates and their support” until a month and a half after the primary election. If such committees weren’t held to deadlines tailored to Montana’s election cycle, Molloy added, they could “consciously avoid disclosure by forming in states with less stringent disclosure deadlines than Montana” — a result that would “undermine the very purpose of Montana’s campaign disclosure laws.”
Near the end of his order, Molloy also invoked Mangan’s described challenges contacting CSPF about the complaint in May as a tidy demonstration of why political committees — resident and nonresident alike — are required to file with the state immediately after their first foray into campaign activity.
“The trial testimony made clear that the commissioner had difficulty contacting [CSPF] when he first received the citizen complaint, requiring him to use ‘Google-fu’ to try to find the organization and take shots in the dark at general contact information,” Molloy wrote. “That entire saga could have been avoided if plaintiff had filed its organizational statement consistent with [Montana law].”
Neither Mangan nor the Convention of States Political Fund immediately responded to email requests for comment on Molloy’s decision, and CSPF’s lead attorney in the federal court case did not immediately return an email request for assistance in obtaining a statement from the super PAC. According to its website, CSPF’s 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.
Molloy’s ruling upholding the constitutionality of requiring CSPF to follow Montana disclosure deadlines wasn’t the only bit of resolution surrounding the group’s activities this fall. On Sept. 21, Mangan dismissed a separate complaint brought against the super PAC by the national watchdog nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy. CMD filed the complaint in August alleging that CSPF violated state law by concealing the true source of its funding. The super PAC, which spent more than $126,000 in Montana, got more than a third of its money from an Arizona-based political nonprofit called Conservative Action for America, which, like other so-called dark money groups, is not required to disclose its donors. Based in part on the fact that Conservative Action for America was created by CSPF’s founder, Richard Johnson, CMD claimed that the money used for candidate research, fliers and radio ads in Montana came from “straw-donor contributions.”
In a response filed with Mangan’s office, both groups characterized CMD’s complaint as lacking supporting evidence. Mangan ultimately agreed in his decision last month, writing that neither he nor the complainant had uncovered evidence that Conservative Action for America had solicited donations expressly for use in messaging in Montana elections. Without such evidence, the state “does not have jurisdiction” over the nonprofit, Mangan wrote, adding the CSPF “properly and appropriately” named the nonprofit as a contributor.
CMD Executive Director Arn Pearson told Montana Free Press via email this week that his organization is “disappointed” by Mangan’s dismissal of the complaint.
“But note that the commissioner did not address the merits,” Pearson added. “CMD stands by its assertion that the group formed a fake [nonprofit] in Arizona to hide the identity of major donors to its super PAC, and will pursue the matter in other states. Voters should be very wary about putting the fate of the U.S. Constitution in the hands of a radical group that goes to such lengths to hide who bankrolled its big money attempt to influence Montana’s primaries.”