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Attorney General Knudsen Accused Of Soliciting Ghost Competitor For Campaign Finance Purposes

(Editor’s Note: This story is adapted from Capitolized, a weekly newsletter featuring expert reporting, analysis and insight from the reporters and editors of Montana Free Press.)

A recording obtained and published by the Daily Montanan this week appears to feature Attorney General Austin Knudsen telling supporters at a May 11 fundraising event that he recruited his primary challenger in an effort to raise more money for his own campaign.

“I do technically have a primary,” Knudsen told supporters at an event in Beaverhead County in response to an audience question, according to the Daily Montanan. “However, he is a young man who I asked to run against me, and that’s because our campaign laws are ridiculous.”

(The recorded voice sounds like Knudsen, but Capitolized could not independently determine the veracity of the recording).

The Daily Montanan’s reporting sparked a pair of campaign practice complaints from the Montana Democratic Party alleging that Knudsen, through a scheme with his primary opponent, Daniels County Attorney Logan Olson, is violating campaign finance law.

“Olson is not a legitimate, good faith candidate,” according to the complaint filed against Olson. “In the meantime, Knudsen actively uses Olson’s nominal presence in the Republican primary to continue to solicit donations in excess of $790.”

At the heart of the issue is a quirk in Montana campaign law that Knudsen would not be the first candidate to exploit, deliberately or otherwise.

Montana statute applies aggregate donation limits to individual campaigns. These limits are adjusted for inflation and other factors. Currently, the individual donation limit to an attorney general candidate each election is $790. The qualifier “each election” is important.

“For purposes of this section, ‘election’ means the general election or a primary election that involves two or more candidates for the same nomination,” state law says. “If there is not a contested primary, there is only one election to which the contribution limits apply.”

In other words, state law treats the primary and general contests as separate elections. As such, an individual or committee can donate $790 to the candidate during the primary election and another $790 during the general election, effectively doubling the limit.

But that’s only if the candidate has a primary election challenger.

And Knudsen didn’t, at least not until the final day of the candidate filing window, when Olson submitted paperwork to get on the ballot. But Knudsen, by that point, had already in several instances collected max or near-max donations from the same donors for both the primary and general elections, according to campaign finance records.

The Democrats argue in the complaint they filed against Knudsen that this means he received donations in excess of the statutory limit for months before Olson got into the race.

Knudsen’s campaign has yet to officially respond to the complaint, but Jake Eaton, an adviser to the campaign, told Capitolized that Knudsen is “100 percent in compliance with the law and I am confident the Commissioner will dismiss this frivolous complaint.”

Chris Gallus, Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices, has accepted the complaints and reached out to both campaigns for responses, he told Capitolized.

The complaints also allege Olson, a 2020 University of Montana law school graduate and member of the board of trustees for Scobey Public Schools, is not eligible to serve as attorney general regardless of the alleged campaign finance scheme because he has not been “engaged in the active practice thereof for at least five years before election” as the Montana Constitution requires.

Olson was admitted to the Montana State Bar in September of 2020. In a statement to the Lee newspapers Montana State News Bureau, Olson said he will be eligible to hold the position of attorney general by the general election because of the state Supreme Court’s Student Practice rule, which permits law students to practice in court in certain circumstances.

Olson, who Knudsen said in the recording is planning to vote for him, did not return a request for comment from Capitolized Thursday. Olson has a history with a number of conservative legal causes, including as a university chapter president of the Federalist Society.

Olson doesn’t appear to be actively running a campaign for attorney general. He has no campaign website, has reported no fundraising, and the individual his campaign lists as treasurer is Knudsen’s treasurer, Katie Wenetta.

Wenetta, who commonly works with Republican candidates, told Capitolized that it’s not uncommon for people in her position to work for multiple candidates in the same election.

In 2020, for example, both candidate Greg Gianforte and his Republican primary opponent Al Olszewski — a hardliner unlikely to run just to do a favor for Gianforte — listed Lorna Kuney, another oft-hired GOP-affiliated campaign contractor, as treasurer.

The only item in Olson’s campaign ledger is an unpaid debt to Standard Consulting, a firm linked to conservative lobbyist and consultant Chuck Denowh, labeled “reimbursement for filing fee.”

Denowh, who has donated to Knudsen this year, told Capitolized Thursday that he helps “a lot of candidates.”

“I always encourage people to run, and I think the more choices you have is better for our democracy,” he said.

The complaints from the Democrats ask the state Commissioner of Political Practices to declare Olson’s candidacy invalid and compel Knudsen to reimburse donors for the money he collected above the $790 per-election limit.

Eaton noted that several Democrats have run what appear to be similar, if unavowed, schemes. In 2016, former state lawmaker Bill McChesney ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary against incumbent Steve Bullock but never raised or spent a cent, according to campaign finance records.

And this year, leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ryan Busse faces a primary opponent in Helena attorney Jim Hunt, who filed to run just a few days before the deadline and has also not raised any money. Hunt previously told Montana Free Press that he donated to Busse’s campaign in 2023 and decided to enter the race to add to the chorus criticizing Gianforte.

“I’m more interested in criticizing our current governor than Ryan Busse,” Hunt said.

A spokesperson for the Busse campaign said Busse did not solicit Hunt to run in the primary.

Assuming Knudsen wins his primary, he’ll face Democratic attorney Ben Alke in the general election. Alke faces his own campaign finance complaint filed by the Montana Republican Party.

The complaint, filed last October, alleges that Alke’s campaign illegally failed to record expenses incurred by a campaign- launch fundraiser and a promotional video in his first campaign finance report.

The campaign responded that Alke had paid out of pocket and that the campaign’s reimbursement of his expenses is reflected in the report filed in the subsequent reporting period because of the time it took to receive invoices. The campaign also amended the first report to reflect payments Alke made for gasoline.

The commissioner’s decision in the Alke matter is pending.

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