By Perry Backus - November 23, 2018 - Originally published in the Ravalli Republic.
The Ravalli County commission has decided to forgo its request for a state investigation of funding sources from seven Montana-based nonprofit conservation and sportsmen organizations.
“Unless something else breaks or shakes out, right now we have other things we will focus on,” said Commission Chair Jeff Burrows Wednesday.
In October, State Attorney General Tim Fox told the commission in a letter that his office lacked the jurisdiction to investigate the matter. Gov. Steve Bulloch has yet to respond to the commission’s request.
In August, the commission asked the state attorney general and governor to investigate organizations that included Montana Mountain Mamas and Montana Wilderness Association for potential ties to “dark money” groups. Their request came after a county resident presented them with a report titled “Green Decoys. Montana in the Crosshairs: How Foreign/Out-of-State Money is Trying to Influence State Voters.”
In their original letter, the commissioners said that as local elected officials they had “been attacked by well-funded organizations who engage in blatant, and extremely misleading political activity with little or no public disclosure of how much money is being raised or from whom the funding is generated.”
The request followed a summer sign campaign from an organization called “Our Land, Our Legacy” that included a photograph of six Ravalli County residents and the statement “Respect the public you work for. Respect public lands.”
Fox’s letter said that while his office has some authority over nonprofit organizations, including protecting the integrity of charitable assets and addressing fraudulent solicitations of charitable donations, the commission’s complaints did not fall under any category the attorney general could address.
“Your letter appears to confuse political activity with issue advocacy,” Fox wrote. “The activities, while at times related, are subject to very different regulations and laws by both the state and federal governments.”
Any allegations of illegal political activity should be reported to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, Fox wrote. Allegations of violations of the tax code should go to the Internal Revenue Service.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers president and CEO Land Tawney said that organization appreciated Fox's response.
"We appreciate Mr. Fox’s reasonable response to the commissioners’ baseless accusations," Tawney said. "BHA operates transparently and above board. We have nothing to hide. We’re a group of North American sportsmen and women who are passionate about our public lands and waters and our continued ability to access and enjoy them."
"During this season of giving thanks, we remain grateful for our backcountry places, fish and wildlife, and hunting and fishing legacy," he said.
Burrows said the commission has no plans to take the matter any further.
Initially, the commission had hoped that other counties around the state would consider joining forces to push for an investigation, but Burrows said that didn’t occur.
“It kind of fizzled out,” he said. “I think we just want to leave it alone and not mess with it anymore.”