Pair of campaign complaints filed against Gianforte, Busse in governor's race

Commissioner of Political Practices
Posted at 1:58 PM, Jul 03, 2024

HELENA — With Montana’s race for governor in full swing, the state’s top political cop is fielding campaign practice complaints against both major-party candidates.

Last month, the Commissioner of Political Practices received a campaign complaint against Democratic challenger Ryan Busse. Busse’s campaign filed one of its own against Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Gianforte about a week later.

The initial complaint came from Montana Republican Party executive director Danielle Bradley. Most notably, it accused Busse of “using campaign funds for personal benefit,” because he paid more than $10,000 to Aspen Communications, a consulting firm owned by his wife Sara, and which Busse himself has reported working for. It claimed that violated a state law prohibiting using campaign money to provide “a direct or indirect benefit of any kind to the candidate or any member of the candidate's immediate family.”

Aaron Murphy, Busse’s campaign manager, filed an official response to the complaint, calling it “utterly meritless” and an “attempt by Greg Gianforte to change the conversation from his historic and widely unpopular residential property tax increase.”

Murphy said the law the complaint cited only applied to disposing of campaign funds at the end of an election. He said the regulations that do apply here only bar using campaign money on expenditures “that would exist irrespective of a candidate’s campaign or an individual’s involvement in a candidate’s campaign.” He said Sara Busse is a professional fundraising and communications consultant, that all the payments are directly connected to her doing that work for the campaign, and that there’s no relation to Ryan Busse doing occasional work for the firm.

Busse’s campaign also submitted a lengthy complaint against Gianforte. They accused Gianforte of failing to fully report payments to his campaign manager Jake Eaton and to other staff, and questioned whether he had disclosed all of his campaign fundraising activities as required at the time he declared he was running for reelection.

Eaton filed the Gianforte campaign’s response, which called the complaint “frivolous” and said “Busse has presented no evidence and offers only wild speculation to support its claims.”

Eaton pointed to a state law that says candidates don’t have to file a report if their political party committee provides paid staff time as an in-kind contribution, and noted the Montana Republican Party has reported payments to him and to the other staffers working with Gianforte. He said their campaign’s fundraising during the first part of the campaign was done entirely in compliance with the law and wasn’t “implausible” as the complaint suggested.

It will now be up to Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus to decide whether a full investigation into these complaints is required.