An organization that contributed millions of dollars to the campaign behind Montana’s successful marijuana legalization ballot initiative is facing potential prosecution following an investigation into its refusal to reveal the names of its own donors.
North Fund, which registered as an incidental political committee in the state, put $4,709,520 toward the reform measure. But an anti-legalization activist filed a complaint prior to the November vote alleging that the group is actually an independent committee that is required to disclose information about where its funds come from.
At issue is whether the group exists mainly to influence elections.
An independent committee is defined as having “the primary purpose of supporting or opposing candidates or ballot issues but is neither a ballot issue nor a political party political committee.” Meanwhile, an incidental political committee is one “that does not have the primary purpose of supporting or opposing candidates or ballot issues.”
The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP) filed a formal referral for prosecution against the group on Monday. COPP claims that North Fund is improperly registered based on the extent to which its funds have been used for political purposes, and they want the Lewis and Clark County attorney to consider bringing a case against the group.
In its new filing, COPP said that “sufficient evidence of a campaign practice violation exists,” necessitating the disclosure of contributions, registering as an independent committee and a possible fine. It also asserts that the failure to disclose sources of funding “cannot generally be excused by oversight or ignorance.”
“Because there is a finding of violation and a determination that de minimis and excusable neglect theories are not applicable to the above Sufficiency Findings, a civil fine is justified,” COPP said. “Because of the nature of the violation, this matter is referred to the County Attorney of Lewis and Clark County for his consideration as to prosecution.”
A North Fund spokesperson declined to comment to Marijuana Moment, stating that it does not weigh in “on ongoing legal matters.”
If the county prosecutor declines the case, the commissioner retains the right to seek legal action in Montana’s criminal courts. It is also possible that the dispute could be settled with a “payment of a negotiated fine,” the filing states.
“In setting that fine the Commissioner will consider matters affecting mitigation, including the cooperation in correcting the issue when the matter was raised in the Complaint,” it continues.
It’s unclear what, if anything, a campaign finance violation finding would mean for the voter-approved legalization initiative. New Approach Montana, the group behind the measure, has expressed gratitude for North Fund’s contributions but is not directly linked to the committee, which has also financially supported other progressive causes in states across the country.
In addition to the campaign donations, New Approach Montana also separately benefited from in-kind contributions that North Fund made to support polling and consulting on the legalization measure.
Marijuana Moment reached out to New Approach Montana for comment, but a representative did not immediately respond.
The legalization campaign has faced additional headaches this year, as well.
The same person behind the campaign finance complaint, auto dealership owner Steve Zabawa, is separately attempting to invalidate the will of voters with a lawsuit he filed last month that argues the adult-use legalization measure is unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs argued that the voter-approved statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such activity from being included in a citizen initiative. The state Supreme Court declined to take the case in October, but it did not rule on the merits. Instead, it said the filers failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process, which they are now pursuing.
Earlier, the coronavirus pandemic created separate challenges for the reform campaign, forcing activists to temporarily suspend in-person signature gathering. While they requested approval to collect signatures electronically—ultimately filing suit in district court to get the relief—it was rejected. The campaign later resumed physical signature gathering but with social distancing measures and safety protocols in place.
Read the COPP filing on the North Fund committee below: