Montana's enviro writers accused of campaign violations

A Helena Republican claims 40 of Montana’s top writers and their supporters violated federal election laws during the recent special election for Montana’s Congressional representative.

Over the past few days, the writers, photographers and dozens of supporters received letters from the Federal Election Commission informing them that Joe Dooling, Chair of the Lewis and Clark County Republican committee, had filed a complaint accusing them of multiple campaign violations. He had issues with their self-published anthology, "We Take Our Stand: Montana Writers Protecting Public Lands."

A few months ago, writers Rick Bass, Seabring Davis, and Brian Schott founded the Montana Writers for Public Lands, a Montana political action committee, and recruited another 40 writers to compose short essays and poems primarily in support of public lands. In the early emails and web pages announcing the effort, the writers idealistically saw the anthology as a way to raise their voices in the name of democracy. Bass wrote on the website that the project was “patterned after the ‘I’ll Take My Stand’ movement of the Southern Agrarians—12 intellectuals, artists, and writers in the Deep South in the 1930s, also speaking up on behalf of their home ground.”

But the publication also endorsed Democratic candidate Rob Quist’s promise to support public lands. Quist was running against Republican candidate Greg Gianforte. Quist is also named in the complaint.

The group raised almost $10,000 - partly from friends and partly from a “generosity” online campaign - to pay for printing the anthology and to pay three state newspapers to include it in their Sunday issues on May 20, according to the group’s website

Their effort wasn’t much different than that of other PACs that raise money to produce ads to tout the virtues of their chosen candidate or attack their opponent. Unlike dark-money PACs, the Montana Writers of Public lands published the names of their contributors. Plus, they’ve said they're returning donations that exceeded the cost of printing, according to the “generosity” site.

But Dooling zeroed in on a May 20 Bozeman Chronicle article that appears to show that the group consulted with the Quist campaign on which newspapers to target for the anthology insert. Although not a direct quote, the paragraph cites Davis as saying they consulted on where the most undecided voters were.

That sets the stage for all of Dooling’s charges.

Dooling contends that consultation puts the anthology into the category of “coordinated public communications,” which triggers mandatory reporting to the FEC. In addition, if it is coordinated communications, the $10,000 counts as an in-kind contribution instead of an independent expenditure. But campaign laws limit such contributions to only $2,700.

Dooling also claims that the Montana Writers of Public Lands had not registered with the FEC, which was required once the PAC had raised more than $1,000. However, an FEC document reveals that the Montana Writers registered on May 22, two days after they published the insert.

It could not be confirmed online whether the Montana Writers PAC is registered with the state of Montana.

FEC reports indicate that the Quist campaign wasn’t doing any manipulative fundraising in other respects. Quist ran his fundraising much like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, refusing money from corporate PACs or lobbyists, depending mainly on the support of individual donors. Individual donations averaged $25 and donations of $1,000 or more only amounted to about $61,000 in the last month, according to FEC reports.

Yet, Dooling concluded his complaint with the strong assertion that the Quist campaign, the writers and their supporters “have utterly, willfully and knowingly disregarded the provisions of federal law enacted to protect the public from dark money, shadowy and unaccountable organizations who disseminate campaign materials in the closing days before an election, without providing legally required notice of sources and amounts of the funds used to pay for such materials.”

Dooling filed the complaint with the FEC the day before Montana’s election, just hours before Gianforte body-slammed a Guardian reporter and was charged with assault in Bozeman. Some Quist supporters think the complaint is intended to have a chilling effect on future grassroots efforts to protect public lands or oppose Republican candidates.

Several of the writers and supporters declined comment until they’d sought legal counsel.

Correction: The story was modified on June 6 to reflect the fact that a document was found showing that the Montana Writers for Public Lands registered as a federal PAC on May 22.