Former Darby Mayor JC McDowell violated campaign finance laws in the Nov. 7, 2017 election, according to Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices, Jeffrey Mangan.
In a decision issued Dec. 28, Mangan writes that McDowell should be fined, and said he’s referring the matter to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney for consideration of prosecution of the case.
If the county attorney waives the right to prosecute, or fails to prosecute the case within 30 days, which typically happens, the matter returns to the commissioner for possible prosecution.
Mangan notes that most campaign finance law violations are settled with a negotiated fine.
McDowell, who was defeated in the Nov. 7 election, said he made an honest mistake at a time when he was putting in 20 hours per week trying to deal with city matters while also running his business.
“There’s two warnings people can get out of this,” McDowell said ruefully. “They probably need to read the directions closely, and ask questions if you don’t know how to fill out the forms.
“But ignorance is no excuse for violating the law, and basically I filled out the form wrong.”
Bill De Spain, who filed the complaint and is a new Darby council member, said he’s happy with Mangan’s decision.
“I’m expecting him to get a fine, but I don’t know what it’s going to be,” De Spain said. “The thing about the complaint is every person who runs for office has to fill out a document on how much you will spend. He said he wouldn’t spend or take any money, and then we find out he spent about $3,500.”
Mangan wrote that when McDowell filed his statement of candidacy on July 12, 2017, he did so as an “A” box candidate, certifying that no money would be spent or received during the campaign.
McDowell said he did that because if a person files as a “B” or “C” candidate, they have to set up a bank account and have a treasurer, and he didn’t have either in July.
“Usually in Darby you don’t campaign until the last month,” McDowell said. “I didn’t want to open a bank account in July.”
On Nov. 1, 2017, Mangan’s office received a copy of a political postcard supporting three candidates in the Darby municipal election, with a return address of “Responsible Governing for Darby.” A review of the commissioner’s records didn’t turn up any information on a political committee with that name, but when contacted McDowell stated he was responsible for creating and paying for the mailer.
“Candidate McDowell stated he thought he did not need to update his statement of candidacy until he paid for the mailer, and had not yet received the invoice,” Mangan wrote. “He stated it was his intent to both report the change in candidacy and report the expenditure.”
McDowell said he didn’t know that he was supposed to estimate the amount of the expenditure, instead of relying on an invoice. He also planned on only filing one report, since he believes the forms are complicated.
“The report dates are confusing, and I was trying to be mayor and had a full-time job,” McDowell said. “My intention was to file the form… but I clearly didn’t understand their definition of expenditure.”
Mangan explained that statements of candidacy needed to be updated at the time the initial expenditure was incurred. McDowell changed his filing to a “C” box candidate, meaning he intended to spend more than $500, the day after discussing the matter with Mangan, and named his candidate committee “Responsible Governing for Darby.”
In addition, McDowell submitted an initial campaign finance report on Nov. 2, saying he personally contributed $34 to his campaign. In addition, he reported two debts for political post cards he ordered that totaled $546 and spending $841 for yard signs. He later reported a $788 debt for post cards, but only reported the total cost of all expenditures for the post cards – $1,861 – on Dec. 8, missing the Nov. 27 deadline.
On Nov. 3, Mangan received a campaign finance complaint from De Spain, which was dated Nov. 1.
Mangan found that four of McDowell’s post cards were incorrectly attributed to the “Responsible Governing for Darby” group, and that two of the costs totaling $526 weren’t reported in a timely manner.
“… the public has a right to full disclosure of all debts and estimated debts incurred by a candidate during the appropriate reporting periods,” Mangan wrote, quoting from a previous complaint. “By failing to timely report the debt, candidate McDowell violated Montana campaign finance law.
“Reporting and disclosure is required so that the public, press and opposing candidates understand the contribution and expenditure of funds used in support of a particular campaign.”