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Montana's political practices commissioner dismisses complaints against nonprofits

Legal Gavel
Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

On Thursday, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan dismissed a trio of complaints filed last week by Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen against three Montana-based nonprofits that recently won a lawsuit against her office. In each decision, Mangan determined that Jacobsen’s allegations were “frivolous” and “unsupported by evidence.”

The three complaints, lodged Oct. 20 against the ACLU of Montana, Forward Montana and the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG), claimed that each group had violated state law by directing Montanans to mail voter registration forms to an address other than their county elections office. In separate responses submitted to Mangan Oct. 24, all three nonprofits rebuffed the allegations as “meritless” and requested the complaints be dismissed.

Two of the responses further accused Jacobsen of attempting to “punish and retaliate against” the nonprofits for their involvement in a recent lawsuit that resulted in a Yellowstone County District Court judge declaring three new election administration laws unconstitutional. Those laws included the elimination of Election Day registration and the implementation of more stringent voter identification requirements, both of which were introduced by lawmakers at Jacobsen’s request.

“The secretary should not be allowed to abuse the complaint process in this manner,” Upper Seven Law attorneys Rylee Sommers Flanagan and Niki Zupanic, who represented youth plaintiffs in the court case, wrote to Mangan on Forward Montana’s behalf. “This office has admonished complainants who abuse the complaint process in the past. Even meritless complaints that are resolved quickly expend taxpayer time and resources and undermine the legitimacy of the process.”

Dana Corson, director of Jacobsen’s elections and voter services division, fired back in a letter to Mangan Monday expressing disappointment in what he called the “politicization” of the campaign practices complaint process.

“While the active litigation related to Montana’s voter identification and registration deadline involves the subject organizations, or affiliates, as parties, the office’s referral has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the organizations are parties in the proceeding,” Corson wrote. “While we dispute the narrative included in their response, we see no need to address it in this improper forum.”

None of Mangan’s decisions addressed the claims of motivation stemming from the recent court case in Yellowstone County.

In dismissing the complaint against Forward Montana, Mangan noted that Jacobsen’s allegations appeared to center on the nonprofit’s decade-long practice of collecting completed voter registration forms in dropboxes in various Montana communities for submission to county election offices. Photos of one of those dropboxes were the only attachments accompanying the complaint. Mangan stated in his decision that the information in the photo did not direct applicants to mail their completed forms anywhere.

“The COPP is unable to identify a single specific instance where Forward Montana encouraged individuals to mail a voter registration application to any address other than the individual’s county elections office,” Mangan wrote, adding that the photos submitted as evidence were undated and were received by Jacobsen’s office from an unnamed source.

Mangan similarly waved off Jacobsen’s claims against the ACLU, which were triggered by a Sept. 27 email from an election administrator in Big Horn County. In it, the administrator wrote that a few voters had “come in the morning in a huff” about recent mailings from the ACLU. As he noted in his decision, Mangan followed up with that administrator during his office’s investigation and was told that voter concerns which prompted the administrator’s email to Jacobsen’s office had to do with information privacy. The administrator also informed Mangan that she’d received the ACLU mailing herself and confirmed that it directed recipients to return voter registration applications to their county elections office.

As for the allegations against MontPIRG, Sommers-Flanagan and Zupanic attributed the situation to a miscommunication between MontPIRG and one of its partner organizations that led to the latter misstating where completed voter registration applications would be returned. Mangan wrote in his decision that MontPIRG wasn’t the offending party, and regardless, Jacobsen had already forwarded the issue to his office via email nearly a month before filing a formal complaint. The concern “never rose to the level of a potential violation” and had already been “easily addressed and rectified,” Mangan added, with Jacobsen receiving notification of that resolution.

In fact, in all three cases, Mangan noted that the underlying issues in each complaint had already been presented to his office and dealt with weeks earlier. He went on to state that Corson’s response letter Monday appeared to lay out a new process for handling complaints, one whereby the secretary of state’s office forwards any reports of questionable activity to the commissioner of political practices as a formal campaign practice complaint. That process, Mangan wrote, is “unworkable.” Both offices receive similar concerns and allegations on a daily basis, and most are “easily and immediately resolved informally.”

With the latest trio of complaints, Mangan continued, Jacobsen instead triggered a formal process over issues that “did not rise to a level of a potential violation,” necessitating an investigation, written responses from each nonprofit and a formal agency decision — “a much more time consuming process.”

Mangan announced earlier this month that he’d tendered his resignation as commissioner effective Nov. 7. However, he revised that announcement Tuesday on Twitter, writing that he’d contacted Gov. Greg Gianforte and Republican legislative leaders notifying them of his intent to serve out the full remainder of his six-year term, which ends Dec. 30. Mangan explained that he had “many requests to extend my stay to the end of the year” and that “remaining these final weeks made sense on many different levels.”