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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Dartmouth, Stanford Violated Montana Election Laws

The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices found that Dartmouth College and Stanford University, broke state law last October, when the two mailed fliers to 100,000 Montanans ranking state supreme court candidates on a liberal-conservative scale.

Dartmouth College may be looking at a substantial fine for violating Montana’s campaign finance laws.

Today State Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl found that the school, along with Stanford University, broke state law last October, when the two mailed fliers to 100,000 people in Montana purporting to rank candidates for state supreme court on a liberal to conservative scale.

The political science professors behind the mailer said it was pure research, to see if giving people political information would influence voter turnout. But Motl concludes that it was actually advocacy, and that Dartmouth and Stanford had to let his office know what they were doing, and who was paying for it.

"The decision actually found sufficient facts to show that the failure to register, report and disclose as required by law, was a violation of law," Motl concluded.

Dartmouth and Stanford declined interview requests today, but issued statements saying they “disagree” with Motl’s findings are are “disappointed” in them. Stanford’s statement says, “The information in the mailer did not contain any advocacy ...and the mailer clearly stated that it was ‘part of a joint research project at Stanford and Dartmouth.’” The statement says the schools did disclose “that the mailer was “paid for by researchers at Stanford University and Dartmouth College."

Commissioner Motl says he’s working on behalf of people in the state.

"At least in my tenure, this has been the one issue that has been of most concern of the most Montanans, we understand that, and, what we’re doing has to conform to law. But what we’re doing also has to respond to the wishes and desires, to the extent it can, of Montanans. We understand that.

"If you're involved in an election in Montana, with a document that mentions candidates," Motl continued, "then you need to register with the [state political practices] commissioner's office, report and disclose. Because when you do that, that information is available to all Montanans."

When the fliers arrived, there was a great deal of controversy about them bearing the official seal of the Montana Secretary of State’s office. Secretary of State Linda McCulloch called that “deceitful,” but took no legal action after Stanford agreed to a rapid follow-up mailing apologizing for the fliers and telling voters to ignore them.

Jonathan Motl today said that Stanford spending upwards of $40,000 on the follow-up mailing is evidence of “mitigation,” and that he’s less inclined to pursue financial penalties against that school as a result.

"The fact that they did it so fast, and paid for first class postage, and got it out before the election, that’s substantial," Motl said.

The statement Dartmouth issued today says it was part of the “corrective action” taken by Stanford, but Motl doesn’t see it that way.

Before his office can try to negotiate a settlement seeking a payment from Dartmouth or Stanford or both, Lewis and Clark County’s attorney would first have to pass on pursuing the matter. That often happens in political practices cases. If that happens, and Motl’s office isn’t able to reach a settlement with the schools, he can then take the matter up in district court.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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