The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices issued a decision Friday finding that Missoula Sheriff T.J. McDermott violated campaign finance laws.
In mid-May, Travis Wafstet, who is running in the November election for sheriff as an Independent, filed the campaign finance complaint against McDermott with Commissioner Jeff Mangan.
In his decision, Mangan found three of Waftstet’s allegations constituted campaign finance violations that will be referred for a decision on prosecution — although they will most likely end with a negotiated settlement.
“This commissioner…hereby determines that there is sufficient evidence, as set out in this decision, to show that candidate McDermott violated Montana’s campaign practice laws,” Mangan wrote in his report.
He also addressed other allegations but dismissed them after McDermott promptly fixed the issues after being contacted by the commissioner’s office.
Wafstet’s complaint included allegations that McDermott’s campaign finance reports written in early May didn’t include the fact that the sheriff’s 2014 campaign gave his 2018 campaign the yard signs that McDermott has been using.
The sheriff filed an amended finance report listing the transfer of the yard signs after the complaint was made, however the commissioner still decided it constituted a violation, valuing the signs at $2,000.
“Quite honestly, we didn’t know you couldn’t reuse signs or that it needed special reporting if you did,” McDermott told the Missoulian on Friday.
Another allegation about the yard signs — that they cited language from McDermott’s 2014 committee to “elect” him sheriff rather than the 2018 committee to “re-elect” — was dismissed by Mangan.
“It is clear what candidate paid for the sign,” Mangan wrote in his decision.
Mangan likewise dismissed Wafstet’s allegations regarding paid promoted Facebook posts from the sheriff’s account, which each should have included a disclosure notice saying who paid for them. After being made aware of the complaint, the sheriff added the disclosure notice and the commissioner considered that allegation resolved.
Wafstet said Friday he disagreed with the commissioner’s decision to dismiss those complaints even after finding that the attribution had been missing. A decision in a different case last year by Mangan included a clear directive to have a line of who paid for any promoted Facebook posts, he said.
“Every time I’ve boosted something (on Facebook) I’ve made sure it’s on there,” Wafstet said. “I think the commissioner kind of backpedaled.”
The commissioner did find that McDermott did not report the expenditures his campaign made in creating a website and incorrectly reported the date of an expenditure for an online banner advertisement. In the latter case, McDermott’s paperwork used the date it was invoiced for the ad, when it should have written the date the ad was ordered.
McDermott was also dinged for not providing enough detail in his disclosure report about the services provided by a marketing company hired by his campaign. The sheriff said Friday he thought he had included enough detail, but in the future may attach the invoices from the company to err on the side of caution.
Wafstet noted that, having never run for office before, he took a class offered by the commissioner’s office earlier this year on proper reporting and felt that it prepared him for how to file detailed reports.
Mangan’s office, per policy, is referring the campaign violations to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney’s Office for a decision on whether to prosecute the sheriff. However the commissioner noted that typically the prosecutor’s office waives the cases back to the commissioner, who can then decide if civil prosecution is necessary.
“(M)ost of the matters decided by a commissioner are resolved by payment of a negotiated fine,” Mangan wrote in his decision.
McDermott said he looked forward to paying the fine and putting the complaint behind him.
In 2017, McDermott paid a fine of more than $900 after reaching a settlement with the Commissioner of Political Practices regarding a 2014 campaign finance violation regarding incorrect reporting of in-kind contributions from a Missoula law firm.