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Group challenges constitutionality of broad swath of Montana campaign-finance laws

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HELENA, Montana — A Helena-based nonprofit organization has asked a federal judge to rule that a broad swath of Montana's campaign-finance laws is unconstitutional, and it wants to prevent the state from enforcing those laws before this year's elections.

If Montanans for Community Development's lawsuit is successful, it could mean a collapse of the regulations that keep outside groups from coordinating with candidates and spending money to boost or oppose those candidates' campaigns, Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said Friday.

"I think that's what this group is seeking," Motl said. "They're seeking a disruption to the point where that sort of fluidity between the candidate and the independent money can exist, and that's not what Montana law says and that's not what the people of Montana want, either."

Anita Milanovich, an attorney for Montanans for Community Development, acknowledged that the consequences of what the group is seeking would have far-reaching effects on state law.

But the group primarily wants a ruling so it can publish advertisements before the Nov. 4 election without worrying that it will be accused of being a political committee required to disclose its donors or that it illegally coordinated with candidates, according to the lawsuit.

"They want to clear the air so they know what their obligations are," Milanovich said. "Their speech is being chilled and they want to engage in the political debate."

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, argues that the definitions of campaign contributions and expenditures in state law are too vague to be constitutional. It also claims that the definition of a political committee — and the requirements placed on political committees to file disclosure reports — is overly broad and shouldn't include groups such as Montanans for Community Development that are registered for nonpartisan issues advocacy.

The lawsuit also charges that Motl's office should not be allowed to publish the complaints it receives and the decisions it issues, because of the potential to disclose an association's private information.

Those restrictions impede the group's rights to free speech and association, according to the lawsuit. The group is asking a federal judge to declare those laws and regulations unconstitutional and to issue an injunction preventing the state from enforcing them before the November elections.

Motl said this is the second consecutive election cycle that has seen a broad-scale attack on Montana's campaign-finance laws. In 2012, groups and individuals challenged the state's campaign contribution limits and won a favorable ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell that October.

Just a few days later, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Lovell's ruling, but not before Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill accepted a $500,000 donation from the Montana Republican Party. That prompted a lawsuit and a complaint filed with Motl's office.

The appellate court has not yet issued a final ruling in the campaign contribution limits case.

The firm that represented the plaintiffs in that lawsuit, Bopp Law Firm, also is representing Montanans for Community Development.

If U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen sides with the group in this new lawsuit, even more confusion is likely to result in this election cycle, Motl said.

"It would be a major political occurrence," he said.

Montanans for Community Development describes itself as engaging in "grassroots advocacy and issues-oriented educational campaigns to further its goal." The ads it seeks to publish tout energy development and blast environmentalist groups, while picturing legislative candidates who support or oppose its views.

The group has received notice that its standing with the state is in jeopardy because it has not filed a statement disclosing its officers and directors, according to the Montana secretary of state's office.

Milanovich said that was an administrative oversight, and the group's president is Bill Coate, who ran for governor as an independent in 2012. Coate, through Milanovich, declined to comment.

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