Rick Hill, campaign finance and...Van Halen?

Much like Van Halen, campaign finance law in Montana can be divided into three distinct periods. From 1912 until three weeks ago, donations to candidates from political parties were limited to $22,600 per election cycle. On Oct. 3, Judge Charles Lovell ruled that limit unconstitutional in light of Citizens United v. FEC, and for six days—the state's Van Hagar period, if you will—Montana had no laws governing political contributions whatsoever. Then, on Oct. 9, an appeals court reinstated the old limits, pending a federal ruling.

During those six days, the state Republican Party gave gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill $500,000. We don't know where they got it—Federal Election Commision filings show that the Montana GOP had just over $64,000 in the bank as of September—and until the next filing deadline in late October, they don't have to tell us. The only thing state GOP director Bowen Greenwood has made clear is that they won't be asking for it back.

"We don't make the laws here, we just follow them. At the time, that was the law," Greenwood told the Associated Press. "Supporting pro-jobs candidates is what we do here, so of course we donated to Rick Hill."

Greenwood's claim that the Republican Party of Montana does not make laws is a little disingenuous. To name one example, the GOP helped make the Montana Corrupt Practices Act of 1912a law that has forbidden corporations from contributing to Montana political campaigns for the last 100 years, give or take six days.

The Corrupt Practices Act was passed by popular referendum in response to the shenanigans of copper baron William Clark, who in 1898 bribed enough state legislators to have himself declared the Democratic senator from Montana. Clark was one of the 50 richest Americans ever. After his bribery scheme was made public, he bragged that he "never bought a man who wasn't for sale."

Rick Hill is not for sale, but he is accepting offers. He scoffed at a lawsuit filed last week by his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Steve Bullock, demanding that he return the half million. Hill says he already spent it. To strain our Van Halen analogy to its breaking point, he simply cannot drive 55.

It is possible that the $500,000 the GOP gifted Hill50 cents for every man, woman and child in Montana—came from individual donors within the state. It is also possible that it came from the corporations that support American Tradition Partnership, a 501(c)(4) organization whose name appears on almost every brief filed in support of Hill since his windfall.

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American Tradition Partnership is the Washington, D.C., nonprofit that sued to overturn the Corrupt Practices Act after Citizens United v. FEC. Their website is one of six domains hosted on the same server as The Montana Statesman—an ersatz online newspaper that calls itself "Montana's oldest and most trusted news source" and features seven front-page articles attacking Bullock. Besides another faux news site, the other two domains on the server are the campaign websites of state House candidates Jerry O'Neill and Dan Skattum. Of course, American Tradition Partnership is not giving those Republican candidates free web hosting; that would violate the law they've spent the last year trying to erase. It's a coincidence.

It is also a coincidence that American Tradition Partnership is a plaintiff in the motion to find Bullock in contempt of court for his lawsuit against Hill. In the nonprofits's filing, they argue that Bullock should be required to pay for ads to undo the damage he has done to Hill's character. The same day he filed that motion, ATP lawyer James Bopp wrote to Justice Anthony Kennedy and asked the Supreme Court to intervene in Bullock's suit.

All of these motions and injunctions and countersuits refer to Hill's campaign committee by its legal name: A Lot of Folks for Rick Hill. He does seem to garner support from a lot of folks. He also seems to be fighting tooth and nail against whatever law might require him to disclose who they are.

"The law is unconstitutional and remains unconstitutional," Hill's campaign manager told the AP. "It was a legal contribution. It shouldn't be a surprise that the Montana Republican Party is going to support its nominee for governor."

We are not surprised, Montana Republican Party—we're just very disappointed. This brings us to the third stage of our Van Halen analogy, when Montana campaign finance law is fronted by that guy from Extreme. We've returned to the old songs, but in such obviously perverse fashion as to spoil the original material.

It is again illegal for copper barons and third parties to fund political campaigns. For a week in October, though, one judge undid 100 years of Montana law. During that week, one candidate took 20 times as much money as his campaign can legally accept now. We can all act like "Why Can't This Be Love" never happened, but the fact is that Hill is still touring on the proceeds.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.

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