By Ross Markman
A week after learning it would be fined $2,500 by the state, the Hill County Republican Central Committee has asked an attorney to defend it against allegations that it broke state campaign finance laws during Havre Mayor Bob Rice's campaign last year.
The local GOP is now represented by Frank McGee, a Butte attorney and general counsel for the Montana Republican Party, according to a press release issued today by Brad Lotton, chairman of the local Republicans.
The county committee, Lotton said today, plans to fight the allegations and not pay the fine.
"The fine is appalling," he said. "The allegations about the expenditures are untrue. We didn't mix the campaigns."
State Political Practices Commissioner Linda Vaughey found that Rice failed to report an additional $237 in campaign spending during last year's mayoral race. She also concluded that the county GOP committee exceeded the $500 contribution limit to Rice's campaign by $1,603.48.
The allegations, according to Lotton, are only partially true. Rice did fail to report the additional $237 in campaign spending in the time required, he said.
As for the other allegations, state law says a party can spend a maximum of $500 on a candidate's campaign with their cooperation, Lotton said. Anything the committee spends over $500 must be done independent of the candidate.
"We can spend any amount we want on ads as long as it's not coordinated with the candidate," Lotton said. "We ran ads independently of Rice's campaign."
In a July 17 letter to Rice and Lotton, assistant attorney general James Scheier said a court could assess a civil penalty in excess of $11,000.
"The commissioner is authorized to file a civil action seeking a penalty of $500 or three times the amount of the unlawful or unreported expenditures, whichever amount is greater," the letter said.
Vaughey "is willing to accept a combined civil penalty of $2,500 to resolve this matter and to avoid litigation," Scheier's letter added.
The Republican Central Committee announced last week it would use an already-scheduled raffle and a mayor's bake sale to help raise the money to pay off the fine. The Republicans are raffling a bronze made by former Hill County Democratic Central Committee chairman Jim Pasma. Raffle tickets are $5 each.
Lotton said today that the committee had yet to decide how the fine would be divided if it has to be paid.
"It's up to us whether we each pay half," he said.
Vaughey issued her findings in May after receiving a complaint from Debi Friede, Hill County Democratic chair.
In June, she referred the allegations to Hill County Attorney David Rice, who after a couple of weeks decided not to file charges against Bob Rice and the local Republican Party.
David Rice, who is not related to Bob Rice, sent the issue back to Vaughey, saying he was too closely involved. David Rice supported the Democratic candidate for Havre mayor.
"All parties will feel more fairly treated if any further actions on the case are pursued by Vaughey," David Rice said in a press release last month.
Though she's recommending a fine, Vaughey, according to Scheier's letter, concluded that there was no evidence that Bob Rice and the GOP committee intended to mislead the public.
"The statute, however, authorizes prosecution of negligent as well as intentional violations," Scheier's letter said.
McGee could not be reached for comment today.