HELENA (AP) — Conservative groups and individuals seeking to dismantle Montana's campaign contribution limits are trying to force Democrat Steve Bullock to drop a lawsuit against Rick Hill, his Republican opponent in the race for governor.
Bullock, the state's attorney general, is suing Hill over a $500,000 contribution the former congressman accepted from the Montana Republican Party on Oct. 5.
Two days earlier, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ruled the contribution limits were unconstitutional, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the limits on Oct. 9 pending an appeal.
Bullock claims Hill now should have to return the donation. Hill says accepting the donation was legal during the short time Lovell's ruling was in effect.
American Tradition Partnership and 11 other plaintiffs who won the ruling from Lovell have asked the judge to find Bullock in contempt for filing the lawsuit and a separate complaint against Hill with the state commissioner of political practices.
The plaintiffs want Lovell to impose a "coercive contempt fine" against Bullock, meaning he could avoid paying the fine by dropping the lawsuit against Hill and not pursuing legal action against any other candidate or contributor who took a donation above the limits.
Plaintiffs also are asking Lovell to order Bullock to compensate Hill for damages, "including all legal fees and any ads or media buys necessary to rehabilitate any damage done to his character as candidate."
In a court filing late Friday, plaintiffs' attorney Anita Woudenberg said Bullock selectively, unreasonably and in bad faith filed the complaints against Hill, and there is no reason to believe he won't keep bringing complaints against candidates who took donations above the limits between Oct. 3 and Oct. 9.
As an example, Woudenberg said the Lake County Republican Central Committee, one of the plaintiffs, donated $2,000 beyond the maximum $800 allowed to state House candidate Joe Read.
Read, the Republican incumbent, faces Democrat Forrestina "Frosty" Calf Boss Ribs for the House District 15 seat.
Woudenberg did not immediately return a call for comment Monday. The campaigns of Hill and Bullock did not immediately respond to queries from The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Bullock is attempting to move his lawsuit back to state court, where he originally filed it last week. Hill's attorney moved the case to federal court, saying it belongs in the same court that made the ruling on the campaign contribution limits.
The back-and-forth over the $500,000 contribution has escalated to one of the top issues in the close gubernatorial race. The donation far exceeds the $22,600 Hill would normally be allowed to collect from all political parties combined.
The Montana Republican Party also donated $32,000 to attorney general Tim Fox. The GOP has not said where it received the money, but its next finance report is due Thursday.
Fox's opponent, Pam Bucy, returned a $35,000 donation from the Montana Democratic Party after the appellate court reinstated the limits.
Campaign finance reports for candidates for statewide offices, including governor, were due Monday.