2012 campaign-finance dispute finally settled

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The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices has settled a campaign-finance case against a Kalispell physician and her anti-abortion group.

Dr. Annie Bukacek and the organization she leads, the Montana Pro-Life Coalition, faced a complaint from Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices alleging misconduct in the 2012 Republican primary in Montana’s Senate District 3. Now, the state has decided that the improper actions originated from another group already under scrutiny for its campaign-finance practices.

In May 2012, a mailing with Bukacek’s letterhead and signature was sent to Flathead Valley residents. It endorsed Rollan Roberts II in his primary campaign against incumbent Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, whom it claimed had “used his position as a legislative leader to further the radical abortionists’ anti-family agenda.”

Tutvedt narrowly defeated Roberts in the primary, but the controversy surrounding the race endured. Tutvedt and another Republican, Sandy Welch, filed campaign-finance complaints against Roberts and conservative-leaning groups. Two of these, the National Right to Work Committee and American Tradition Partnership, have stirred years of controversy over undisclosed involvement in state campaigns from 2008 through 2012. In 2015, concern about “dark money” groups spurred passage of Senate Bill 289, requiring political groups to disclose their donors and spending.

Tutvedt did not name Bukacek or the Montana Pro-Life Coalition in his complaint, but did include the letter with several other mailings and documents he submitted to then-Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, who examined it in his January 2016 decision. Costs related to the May 16 mailing, he wrote, amounted to “a 2012 election expenditure that may be examined for compliance with Montana’s campaign practice act.” Because the coalition had not reported any campaign expenditures that year, Motl found that “sufficient facts exist to show that the [Montana Pro-Life Coalition] failed to comply with Montana campaign practice law and standards by failing to report and disclose campaign expenditures.” He promptly brought charges against the group in Lewis and Clark County District Court.

In a Jan. 17, 2016, letter to the editor, Bukacek wrote “If Mr. Motl had done his homework, he would know the Montana Pro-Life Coalition has never been hampered in free speech based on IRS status.” She also told the Inter Lake that her group was registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, arguing that this status gave it greater leeway in political activities.

But the settlement that Bukacek and the coalition have reached with the current commissioner, Jeff Mangan, rests on a different element of the case: the letter’s origins.

Bukacek declared that it had been prepared and sent without her knowledge or approval. Mangan concurred, citing evidence that it had been “produced by Christian LeFer and/or Allison LeFer utilizing information gathered through their association with the National Right To Work Committee,” and that it resembled the “style and tone” of letters sent by state and national anti-abortion groups in previous election cycles.

Other mailings sent in support of Roberts in May 2012, also included with Tutvedt’s complaint, show some similarities to the letter sent under Bukacek’s name: for instance, the salutation “Dear Friend” and a postscript reiterating the importance of voting for Roberts.

Disseminating a letter under Bukacek’s signature and the coalition’s name, Mangan decided, amounted to “reprehensible and fraudulent action taken by the third parties in the 2012 election cycle.”

In an email, Bukacek argued that “the Office of Political Practices, under the ‘leadership’ of Jonathan Motl ... served as nothing more than a vehicle for persecution of pro-life pro-liberty conservatives.” Her attorney, Matthew G. Monforton, wrote in a separate message that “Dr. Bukacek never doubted that she would be absolved of all allegations of wrongdoing and will continue fighting for the lives of Montana’s unborn children as she has done throughout her career.”

Rep. Tutvedt, meanwhile, told the Inter Lake that he had no additional facts with which to pursue the matter further. In his view, the “injustice is that it takes so long. It’s long past the [2012] election and we’re finally getting resolution.”

Tutvedt expressed confidence that Senate Bill 289 has since curbed organizations’ ability to participate in campaigns without registering. “We lost the battle but we’re winning the war.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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