By Tim Leeds
The Hill County Democrats contested the Havre mayor's election before it even happened.
Debi Friede, chair of the Hill County Democratic Party , sent a notarized complaint to the Montana commissioner of political practices alleging that mayoral candidate Bob Rice and the Hill County Republican Party violated three Montana laws in their advertising during Rice's campaign. Friede sent the letter by certified mail on Nov. 5, the day before the general election.
"To me, it's a big deal," Friede said today. "What they did was say a vote could be bought, and the reason those laws are in there is to prevent that."
Brad Lotton, Hill County Republican chair, said the Republicans did nothing wrong.
"It's all sour grapes, anyway," he said. "It wasn't like we lost by three or four votes. It was a resounding victory. They should deal with it and do better in three or four years."
Rice won the Nov. 6 election with 56.7 percent of the votes case or a margin of 322 votes. He won the election over Democrat Mike Shortell in all four wards. The citywide tally was 1,361 to 1,039.
The largest part of her complaint, Friede said, was that the Republican Party spent about $2,000 on behalf of Rice's campaign. The law mandates no more than $500 may be spent by a political committee in collaboration with a candidate, she said.
Lotton said the code Friede cites in her complaint was not violated by the Republicans. The spending limit only applies to advertisements made with the knowledge and cooperation of the candidate, he said. As long as the candidate is not involved, an organization or individual can run any ads it desires, he said.
"Bob didn't even look at these ads," Lotton said.
Lotton countered that well-known Hill County Democrat Ray Peck was seen taping disclosures to Democratic campaign signs on Nov. 4 to make the signs legal before the Democrats filed their complaint with the state. Lotton said the disclosures were those required by law that describe who paid for the signs.
"Absolutely false," Peck said, adding that he was looking at some Republican signs that day to see if the signs had proper disclosures. Many did not, Peck said, which is another part of Friede's complaint.
Peck pointed out the TV satellite dish on Fifth Avenue and Fourth Street with "Bob 4 Mayor" printed on it as an example because it had no disclaimers. Other signs, both handmade and professionally made, had incomplete disclaimers, he said.
Peck said the laws about disclaimers on ads are very specific and are made available to all campaigns.
"I think if we've got rules to a game, we all abide by them," he said. "It's just like a basketball game or a football game. We all abide by the same rules."
Lotton said that as far as he knows, no officially printed Republican signs violated disclosure rules. He added that the Republican Party saw some minor violations on the part of the Democrats' campaigns, but saw no reason to file complaints.
Dulcy Hubbert, administrative assistant to Commissioner of Political Practices Linda Vaughey, said the commissioner will now assign an investigator to the complaint. Once the investigation is done, Vaughey will issue a statement and summary of findings, including her decision.
Hubbert said she doesn't know how quickly Vaughey will be able to assign someone to the investigation. About eight complaints have been filed from people around the state since mid-October, many more than normal.
The commissioner's decision won't affect the election results, Hubbard said. Under Montana law, the plaintiffs can take the commissioner's decision into court, which could nullify the election, requiring a new election.
Mary Baker of the commissioner's office said the complaint would have to be very powerful, showing the outcome of the election would have changed without the violations, for the election to be overturned.
Friede said she thinks that is the case. Many undecided voters may have been persuaded simply because they saw Rice's name so often with the additional advertising, she said.