Political practices commissioner dismisses Secretary of State’s election complaints as ‘frivolous’

By: - October 28, 2022 4:49 pm

The Montana Capitol in Helena (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Just a week after the Montana Secretary of State filed complaints against three organizations that recently successfully sued her office, the state’s commissioner of political practices dismissed the trio of allegations, characterizing them as “unsubstantiated” and “frivolous.”

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen filed the complaints last week, stating that the American Civil Liberties Union, Forward Montana and the Montana Public Interest Research Group had all violated state election laws, but saying her office lacked the investigatory powers to correct the action.

However, in his ruling, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan not only dismissed the complaints, but said all three lacked any credible foundation, and he chided Jacobsen’s office for failing to address concerns in a timely manner. Moreover, he criticized Jacobsen’s handling of the concerns saying that in addition to lacking evidence, they also did not rise to the level of a formal complaint and could have been resolved by a phone call or email.

“In this matter, the SOS office filed a formal CFP Complaint with the Commissioner of Political Practice, delaying resolution of the issues,” Mangan wrote of the Campaign Finance Practices complaint. “Had the issues been referred to the commissioner by the SOS office informally, via email message or telephone call, they could have easily and immediately been addressed through the informal process. Instead, because the SOS office filed a formal complaint on an issue that did not rise to a level of potential violation, COPP was required (to) process the formal CFP complaint … a much more time consuming process.”

Mangan’s office also pointed out that while Jacobsen’s complaints urged the commissioner to take immediate action “with proximity to the election,” he pointed out that the Secretary of State had inexplicably waited for weeks until filing the complaints.

“The SOS’s complaint refers to an email message from a county election administrator received on Sept. 27,” it said. “The formal CFP complaint was not filed by the Secretary of State’s office until Oct. 20.”

The three complaints were all filed at the same time and were similar. They alleged that the three organizations had directed Montana voters to send voter registrations to somewhere else besides the county election office, a violation of Montana law. However, Mangan found that only one case had any basis, and that his office had already addressed the matter a month before Jacobsen filed the complaint.

Jacobsen’s office, in a letter to Mangan explaining its rationale for filing the trio of complaints, said that it was merely passing along information it had received because it has no investigatory power, although is statutorily required to administer elections statewide. It said that because it lacked the power to investigate election-related complaints, that forwarding the information to Mangan was the only option available, and suggested it was doing so in order to document the allegations.

However, Mangan’s office rejected the rationale, saying that education – both in the political and election arena – are tracked jointly by both offices, and both share the responsibility of education.

“Both the SOS office and the Commissioner of Political Practices receive similar concerns, issues and allegations daily via email and phone calls. The COPP addresses such concerns informally by providing education and guidance where appropriate, referring the matter to the appropriate state or local agency, including the formal complaint process when necessary,” the decision said. “The COPP receives hundreds of such inquiries prior to every election, and most are easily and immediately resolved informally.

“COPP would note that any unique concern, issue or allegation raised informally and any communications, guidance or referrals made by COPP are documented by COPP staff.”

Attorneys representing the organizations asked Mangan’s office to dismiss the complaints and making a ruling finding them “frivolous.” In addition, they asked for Mangan to levy a fine against the Secretary of State for abusing the complaint process.

While Mangan found the complaints frivolous and chided the office for using public resources for a complaints that were either ill-timed or baseless, he explained “there is no provision in Montana law which allows the commissioner to assess the costs of frivolous complaints or proceedings in campaign finance complaints.”

“The Secretary of State should be focused on the election, not retaliating against nonprofits in Montana which are helping her do her job by promoting the right to vote,” said Rylee Sommers-Flanagan who represents the Forward Montana Foundation and Montana PIRG. “As the Commissioner recognized, these complaints were completely frivolous and a waste of taxpayer resources.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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