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Knudsen & second AG candidate respond to campaign complaints

Commissioner of Political Practices
Posted at 12:22 PM, May 30, 2024

HELENA — Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen and his opponent in the Republican primary have asked the state’s top political cop to dismiss campaign complaints that accused them of improperly coordinating.

Earlier this month, Sheila Hogan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, filed complaints with the Commissioner of Political Practices. She argued Logan Olson, the other candidate in the GOP primary for attorney general, was not a legitimate candidate and that Knudsen was improperly using Olson’s presence on the ballot to raise more campaign funds.

Montana law allows candidates to raise more money from a single donor if they have a primary opponent than if they’re unopposed.

Hogan’s complaints claimed Olson had not been practicing law for the five years necessary to qualify as a candidate for attorney general, and that there was a “clear tie” between the two campaigns because they shared a treasurer and because Olson worked at a law firm where Knudsen formerly practiced. She called for the two candidates to be fined and for Knudsen to “be compelled to return and reimburse” the additional funds he had raised.

The original complaints were filed before the publication of a Daily Montanan article that said Knudsen had been recorded at a campaign event, telling attendees that he had asked Olson to run in the primary against him so he could raise more. However, Hogan later amended the complaint to include that article.

In a response to COPP last week, Knudsen campaign advisor Jake Eaton said the complaints should be dismissed because Hogan hadn’t alleged a specific violation. He said it has been a longstanding practice for campaigns to raise money for both a primary and general election, then return the donations if a contested primary doesn’t happen.

Olson, the county attorney for Daniels County in northeastern Montana, submitted his own response on Tuesday. In it, he said he had not violated his oath of candidacy, and that he did meet the criteria to serve as attorney general because he had been admitted to practice law in September 2019, under a student practice rule before passing the bar exam, so he would have five years of experience before the general election in November 2024. He cited a 1996 case where the Montana Supreme Court ruled a student attorney’s time practicing under that rule did count for the purposes of minimum qualifications to serve as a county attorney.

Olson also said Hogan’s complaint had not made other specific allegations that he had violated the law and should be dismissed.

On Wednesday, Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus sent a letter to Hogan, saying because of Knudsen and Olson’s responses, he was required to ask for specifics about which rules or laws she believed they had violated. He also replied to Knudsen and Olson’s responses, and he asked Olson to provide more information about his time as a student attorney to determine whether that met the requirement of “active practice” of law.

The Montana Democratic Party said Hogan would amend her complaints to cite a section of state law on “improper nominations,” which says a person cannot make a “payment or promise” to induce someone to be a candidate.