Commissioner to reactivate $500,000 campaign donation complaint vs. gubernatorial candidate

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HELENA, Montana — The state commissioner of political practices is reactivating a complaint against 2012 GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill for accepting a $500,000 campaign donation from the Montana Republican Party.

That complaint and 15 others dealing with contribution limits from past elections had been put on hold while a lawsuit challenging Montana's limits was before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 9th Circuit on Tuesday reversed U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell's 2012 order that briefly blocked the state from enforcing its donor contribution limits. The appeals court sent the case back to Lovell to determine whether the limits further the state's interest by preventing political corruption or the appearance of corruption.

Even though the outcome of that case is still to be determined, Commissioner Jonathan Motl said the 9th Circuit's decision establishes that the state's campaign contribution limits were in place during the 2012 and 2014 elections.

As a result, he is placing the 16 complaints dealing with contribution limits back on his office's active docket, including the one against Hill.

"There isn't any reason why we couldn't go forward," Motl said Tuesday. "It's time for those people to come forward and deal with whatever they did in those elections."

A few weeks before the 2012 general election, Lovell ruled that Montana's thresholds were unconstitutionally low, preventing candidates from effectively campaigning.

The 9th Circuit reinstated the limits a few days later while considering the state's appeal, but not before Hill accepted the $500,000 from the state Republican party.

That led to a lawsuit against Hill by then-Democratic candidate Steve Bullock and a complaint to the commissioner's office by Bullock campaign manager Kevin O'Brien over Hill's refusal to return the money when the limits were reinstated.

Bullock dropped his lawsuit after winning the election.

Hill attorney Matthew Monforton said he believes the 9th Circuit decision will make it difficult for the commissioner to find that Hill's campaign did anything wrong.

"Commissioner Motl will ultimately fail in seeking to impose civil liabilities on Rick Hill based on the actions Hill took that were authorized by a federal judge," Monforton said.

Motl said the complaints against Hill and the others won't be his first priority. That will be implementing the rules and policies governing the 2016 elections, he said.

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