COPP dismissed Montana Democrats’ ethics complaint involving Juras’ Helena rental
The Montana State Capitol in Helena on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)
Montana’s commissioner of political practices dismissed an ethics complaint filed against Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras by the Montana Democratic Party over the home she is renting in Helena from the Montana Family Foundation.
Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus ruled in favor of Juras, saying that rental agreements and sworn affidavits show that she has rented the home near the Capitol in Helena at what both parties agreed was a fair market price and that there is no evidence to show that the rental was offered as a gift in return for any political favors.
Gallus handed down his ruling in July, about seven months after the Democratic Party filed its complaint alleging that Juras was living at the home without a lease and rent-free.
“There is simply no allegation in the complaint which would allow me to conclude even a potential violation exists,” Gallus wrote in his order. “Attempting to attribute powers the Lt. Gov. does not and cannot have to support the complaint is fatal to the complaint itself.”
Kaitlin Price, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said Gallus made the correct decision.
“The Commissioner of Political Practices rightfully dismissed the Montana Democratic Party’s baseless, scurrilous, and partisan complaint against the Lieutenant Governor,” Price said in a written statement.
The Montana Democratic Party filed the complaint Dec. 19 of last year, and Juras responded on Dec. 27 by sending the COPP her response, the lease agreement for the property, and an affidavit from Montana Family Foundation/Montana Family Institute President Jeff Laszloffy.
The MDP asked the COPP to investigate whether Juras was renting the home just a block from the Capitol at below-market value, citing a lack of 2020 rental tax records and noting that 2021 tax records were not available at the time. They also used a Zillow median rent estimate for Helena of $1,850 to allege that Juras was renting the house for less than it was worth.
The response from Juras to the complaint, according to Gallus’s decision, showed Juras initially entered into a lease agreement with the Gianforte Family Charitable Trust on Nov. 9, 2020, to run through Nov. 30, 2021, for a monthly payment of $1,125.
Gallus wrote that the lieutenant governor’s sworn response showed she believed the rent was at a fair market value, that Laszloffy agreed, and that Juras had been paying rent starting in November 2020.
The Montana Family Institute acquired the property from the Gianforte Family Charitable Trust in December 2020 and kept the monthly rent the same but put Juras in charge of paying for electric and gas bills, according to Gallus’s order. Last November, according to Gallus, she also agreed to perform snow removal while her monthly rental price stayed the same. Rent increased this past January from $1,125 per month to $1,250 per month.
Gallus’s decision notes that Laszloffy wrote in his affidavit that the Montana Family Institute rents “an even larger home in the same neighborhood” for $1,200 a month.
Gallus found that the initial complaint failed to state a potential violation of the Montana Ethics Code and contained insufficient allegations for him to find a violation. On numerous occasions in his order, he cites a 2002 decision in a complaint filed against then-Lt. Gov. Judy Martz surrounding land she acquired which was also deemed not to be a gift.
Using that case, Gallus wrote that there can be competing appraisals for how much a property is worth or how much it should be rented out for, and said that “if anything, it was the Lieutenant Governor who was, in fact, aggrieved” because she started to pay for utilities and perform her own snow removal while the rent amount was unchanged.
“If MFI was motivated to curry favor with the Lieutenant Governor, it was going about it in a particularly odd way by renegotiating an existing lease with less favorable terms from the perspective of the Lieutenant Governor. There is no gift,” Gallus wrote.
Despite the Montana Family Foundation and Laszloffy testifying on many bills in both the 2021 and 2023 sessions – most of which they supported were also backed by the Gianforte administration – Gallus said there is no evidence that Juras was, or could be, influenced in her official duties by living at the rental.
“Putting matters in context, based upon the supporting allegations contained in the complaint, if influencing someone to get their legislation signed into law was indeed MFI’s motivation, it should give the GFCT the house back,” Gallus wrote. “Absent an articulable reasonable motivation there is no gift, even a circumstantial one.”
Sheila Hogan, the executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, called the dismissal of the complaint “disappointing.”
“While so many Montanans struggle to find a place to live and deal with skyrocketing housing costs, Republicans continue using the power of their office to win favors from their well-connected friends,” Hogan said in a written statement.
Gallus, who was appointed by Gianforte last winter and confirmed by the Senate in February, declined to assess any costs of the case despite finding no violation occurred, saying he was upholding “historically demonstrated reluctance to exercise this discretion.” But he added he would review previous decisions to learn more about assessing those fees – including possible rulemaking if necessary.
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