HELENA — With a little over a week before election day, a federal political action committee has filed a complaint against the Republican seeking to fill Montana’s empty U.S. House seat.
The committee, called End Citizens United, is alleging Greg Gianforte could have used the Gianforte Victory Fund to circumvent federal contribution limits in a complaint it says was filed with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday. The Gianforte campaign has not received notice that the complaint was filed.
Gianforte is a Republican businessman from Bozeman who is running against Democrat Rob Quist, a musician from Creston. Libertarian Mark Wicks, an Inverness rancher, is also in the race.
The complaint stems from a call May 4, first reported by the New York Times, in which Gianforte told potential donors “if someone wanted to support through a PAC, our victory fund allows that money to go to all the get-out-the-vote efforts.”
The Gianforte Victory Fund is a a joint fundraising committee that includes Greg For Montana (the candidate’s group), the Montana Republican State Central Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee.
Joint fundraising committees are a legal way to solicit money for multiple campaigns or committees at a time. They make reports to the FEC listing their contributors and are bound by the same campaign finance laws that cap donations at $2,700 per person to a candidate.
The joint fundraising committees collect money and then disburse it to the groups that are a member of it. If a contributor has reached their limit on contributions to one member committee, the money is given to the next member or reimbursed.
In the case of this special election, the other groups that would get money from contributors who have maxed out on giving directly to Greg for Montana only have one candidate to spend the money to help in this election — Gianforte.
That’s why End Citizens United claims the joint fundraising committee is a way to circumvent limits, even though no one group has taken in more than the law allows, because all the money will still be spent just on efforts to get Gianforte elected since there are no other Republicans on the ballot.
However, the Quist campaign is in the same boat. That campaign also has a joint fundraising committee, the Quist Victory Fund, of which the only members are the Quist campaign and the Montana Democratic Party. That means any contributions the Quist Victory Fund receives — whether given directly to him or to the Montana Democratic Party — would only benefit Quist since he’s the party’s only candidate on the ballot this May.
Gianforte’s campaign strongly rebutted the complaint Tuesday.
“This group is a sham and the complaint is bogus. This is a 100 percent phony complaint filed by a shady partisan PAC that has endorsed, supports and is backing Rob Quist. This isn’t a valid complaint, it’s laughable,” said spokesman Brock Lowrance.
The Gianforte Victory Fund filed a statement of organization with the FEC on March 17 but has not yet filed any finance reports.
“The Commission should investigate this matter promptly to determine whether Greg for Montana received excessive contributions,” the complaint said.
A candidate may accept up to $5,000 from a PAC and $2,700 from an individual in this election. A person can also contribute to a political committee as long as the contributor “does not give with the knowledge that a substantial portion will be contributed to, or expended on behalf of, that candidate for the same election.”
In this case, End Citizens United says that since Gianforte is the only Republican candidate on the ballot this May, it is clear all donations to the Gianforte Victory Fund or the Montana Republican State Central Committee will support his campaign.
According to the complaint, a Gianforte campaign spokesperson said “Greg was simply stating that they can support the party if they want” and that Gianforte was not referring to the Gianforte Victory Fund but the state central committee.
End Citizens United says that doesn’t change anything. If Gianforte is directing donors to contribute funds to the Montana Republican State Central Committee, it would still circumvent finance limits.
Both Quist and Gianforte swore off PAC money, though not from all types of PACs.
For example, End Citizens United, which has endorsed Quist, is a PAC that has donated $5,000 to Quist’s campaign, which has said it will take money from ideological and labor PACs, according to a report from Roll Call. The same report said Gianforte’s campaign will take money from “political party and leadership PACs.”
Taking money from PACs is not illegal, but has been frowned upon in Montana politics.
According to its website, the FEC reviews every complaint on a case-by-case basis. If a violation has occurred, the outcome can range from a letter to a fine.
While the complaint raises questions about the possibility of circumventing federal contribution limits, it does not offer evidence of it happening, only explaining a situation under which it could occur.
Lowrence called the complaint a political move without merit.
“This fake complaint is nothing more than campaign activity for Rob Quist,” he said. “Quist’s campaign has become so desperate they are now using allies to file fake complaints to try and distract Montanans from the fact that Rob Quist has been caught trying to dodge property taxes and lying about his income on federal documents.”