On the basis of an investigation issuing from a complaint filed with his office, State Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan issued a finding of sufficient evidence last Friday, September 18 to show that Stevensville Mayor Brandon Dewey violated Montana’s campaign practice laws by twice failing to file the required campaign finance reports. Two other allegations against the mayor were dismissed.
The complaint against Dewey was lodged by Stevensville resident Jim Crews and alleged that Dewey had failed to register as a candidate for the upcoming election and that he utilized public time and resources to oppose a recall petition by distributing yard signs and using the town’s website. The Commissioner found sufficient evidence of the first allegation but the allegations concerning the use of public time and resources were both rejected as having no basis in evidence.
Mangan began his reasoning by pointing out that since the mayor has not declared any candidacy for any office in 2020 that would require him to register as a candidate, one subsection of the law also requires “an officeholder who is the subject of a recall petition” to file as a candidate and make the required financial reports.
According to Mangan, once the petition was certified for circulation and gained enough valid signatures for approval, Mayor Dewey was notified on May 22, 2020. The law allows the subject of a recall petition five days to resign the office or face a recall election. That means that on May 27, 2020, Mayor Dewey was automatically a candidate. It also means, according to Mangan, that his statement of candidacy was due on June 3 and none was received, leaving him in violation of the law.
Then on June 22, Dewey filed a lawsuit in district court contesting the validity of the recall petition and Judge Howard Recht granted a temporary restraining order, putting a hold on the petition process. At that point, Mangan reasons, Dewey was technically no longer required to file as a candidate or file a report. That restraining order was lifted by Recht on August 8th when he declared the recall petition valid and Dewey was a candidate again.
Mangan finds that, as a candidate under recall, Dewey failed to file the required statement of candidacy on June 3 and as a candidate his initial financial statement was required on September 3. The next is due September 29.
Mangan rejects Crews’ complaint accusing the mayor of placing campaign signs against the recall all over town. The commissioner notes that the mayor denies placing or having anyone else place his election campaign signs up from the last election. Mangan goes on to state that “no evidence exists to support the notion that Mayor Dewey requested, encouraged, or otherwise coerced citizens to publicly display signs.” He noted that the yard signs were paid for by his previous campaign and duly reported as an expense at the time.
About the complaint concerning the use of the town’s website, the Commissioner states that, “During this investigation, no evidence was uncovered to suggest that Mayor Dewey directly coerced, commanded, or required any individual Town employee/s to oppose the recall petition or support his candidacy in the special recall election. Nor did the complaint contain any concrete examples (specific incidents, name/s of employees involved, etc.) of this occurring.”
Mangan finally notes that the use of the web page in question by a town employee took place prior to the Mayor becoming an official candidate in the recall election. He cautioned, however, that any employee who expressed any support or opposition to the recall election as part of their job now could well place the town in jeopardy.
Mangan’s findings of sufficient evidence that Dewey violated the law by failing to register as a candidate and not filing his initial financial report was forwarded to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney’s office for potential prosecution. According to Mangan, most of the time county attorneys generally waive their right to prosecute or they simply fail to prosecute within 30 days and the matter reverts to his office for possible prosecution. He said most of the time these types of violations include civil fines and are generally resolved by payment of a negotiated fine. In setting the fines, he says he will consider matters affecting mitigation, including cooperation in correcting the issue. If the negotiation attempts are not successful, the Commissioner can take the case to District Court for either intentional or negligent violation of the campaign practice laws.
Mayor Dewey called his failure to file the appropriate forms “an honest oversight.” He said as soon as he was notified about it last Friday he looked at the definition in the law and saw it was clearly a requirement. He said he phoned the Commissioner immediately upon receiving notice on Friday and looked at the legal definitions for the first time. He said it was clear that he had made an oversight but that it was not intentional. He took action to rectify the situation immediately, he said, and his statement of candidacy and his first financial statement have been submitted.
“I take complete ownership of all this,” said Dewey. He said he was now hoping that the county attorney in Lewis and Clark County will waive his right to prosecute and let it return to the Commissioner of Political Practices office where he might negotiate a resolution.