HELENA, Mont. — Whoever bankrolled the effort to qualify the Montana Green Party for this year's state ballot may get away with remaining unknown because the state's campaign disclosure laws do not address anonymous groups funding certain signature gatherers.
The party was allowed to field candidates in the June primary after a political consulting company called Advanced Micro Targeting turned in more than 9,400 voter signatures gathered over just 19 days in February and March.
The Greens needed 5,000 voter signatures spread among 34 state House districts to qualify for political party ballot access by petition.
But it's a mystery who hired the Las Vegas-based company and the 13 signature-gatherers who swooped in to push the Green Party across the finish line just before the state's filing deadline in March. The Green Party did not hire Advanced Micro Targeting. It posted its petition online, put out a call for help collecting signatures and hoped for the best.
Advanced Micro Targeting argued it did not have to disclose who financed its campaign — and the state's campaign regulator agreed.
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan ruled in July that Advanced Micro Targeting was not required to report its spending because it was not advocating on behalf of a candidate. Instead, Mangan ordered the Montana Green Party to report the spending by Aug. 24.
As of Friday, three weeks after the deadline, the Green Party has not responded to the order. Party coordinator Danielle Breck said Wednesday that the party does not know who paid the company or how much money was spent.
The commissioner, with all of his resources, was unable to determine who paid for the signature gathering, Breck said. "I don't know how he expects the Montana Green Party ... to figure it out."
The controversy comes just three years after Montana reformed its campaign finance laws. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and legislative leaders have touted the new law's transparency and disclosure requirements as among the toughest in the nation after the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.
Montana also updated campaign finance laws after paid signature gatherers were used in support of ballot measures in 2006. State law now requires the disclosure of expenses related to gathering petition signatures for an initiative, referendum or a constitutional convention. But it does not address payments made for gathering signatures to qualify minority parties for the ballot, a gray area in the law that's only now being exposed.
"These days, campaign finance disclosure is a game of whack-a-mole," University of Montana law professor Anthony Johnstone said Friday. "That mole got whacked, but this mole popped up."
It's a loophole that the 2019 Montana Legislature should tighten by requiring companies like Advanced Micro Targeting to disclose their paid signature-gathering efforts for party qualification petitions, Johnstone said.
"I think, the Green Party included, most Montanans probably want to know why this out-of-state corporation is trying to influence who's on our ballot," he said.
The Green Party and its candidates have since been kicked off the Montana ballot after a state judge ruled about 80 of the signatures that were accepted by county election administrators were invalid, leaving it short of the number required in several House districts. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the ruling in August.
What remains is the question of who was behind the Green petition push, which Montana Democratic Party officials tried unsuccessfully to answer through the complaint filed with Mangan.
"It is outrageous Advanced Micro Targeting won't tell Montanans who hired them or how much they spent in their attempt to interfere in our democracy," Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said in a statement Wednesday.
The Democrats have a theory. They believe it was a Republican-backed effort aimed at influencing the outcome of this year's election between Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and his challenger, Republican State Auditor Matt Rosendale.
A Green Party candidate in that race would likely siphon votes from Tester.
Republican Party chairwoman Debra Lamm said Friday the party does not know who paid for the signature gathering effort.
Johnstone said it's possible that Green Party's mystery benefactor may have been trying hurt Tester's re-election chances and give Republican candidates an advantage. If so, it shows that Montana's fight against dark-money groups seeking to influence elections didn't end with the state's 2015 campaign finance reforms.
"It is a good reminder that dark money is at play in more than just last-minute mailers," he said.