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Knudsen calls Montana’s campaign laws ‘silly’

by DARRELL EHRLICK Daily Montanan
| June 11, 2024 12:00 AM

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen appears to have doubled down on his comments from a meeting in Dillon last month in which he told an audience that he had recruited a fellow Republican to run against him for attorney general so that he could raise more money.

Those comments triggered a still ongoing investigation with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices for violating state campaign and election laws, which Knudsen also described during that Dillon meeting as “ridiculous.”

In a radio interview with KGEZ in Kalispell, Knudsen said that he wasn’t trying to hide anything and meant to disclose his efforts to recruit an opponent as a demonstration of the state’s “quite silly” laws. Furthermore, he said he told the audience gathered to hear conservative candidates in Dillon about recruiting Daniels County Attorney Logan Olson so that he could be transparent.

Olson, meanwhile, is under a separate but related investigation by the Commissioner of Political Practice because there’s a question whether he lied on the paperwork he filed to run against Knudsen as a Republican candidate for attorney general, and whether he was even qualified to be on the ballot.

Montana law requires a candidate for attorney general to have been practicing law for five years by the time of the election. Olson graduated from law school in 2020, but in paperwork filed in the investigation process at the COPP, Olson claims that part of his work as a law student at the University of Montana should qualify him under what is known as the “student practice” rule, which allows students to do limited work for courts and clients under the supervision of a practicing attorney.

Knudsen’s campaign has repeatedly refused to answer questions or comment when contacted by the Daily Montanan.

On Thursday, after the conclusion of Tuesday’s primary election in which Knudsen defeated Olson, the state’s Republican attorney general said, “I made a public statement that was recorded surreptitiously, but, I mean, that’s fine. That happens. But yes, I was making a comment about our campaign finance laws in Montana. I happen to think that they’re quite silly the way that they’re structured. And I was making a comment about that. Yes.”

In speaking about the incident on radio, Knudsen now says that he was fine and even meant to go public about his efforts to recruit Olson.

“ I was being completely transparent with the people in Montana, which doesn’t often happen in these primaries. Lots of times a shadow opponent shows up in a primary, doesn’t raise any money, doesn’t do any work. No one bats an eye at this. So, yeah, there’s nothing untoward here,” Knudsen said.

Knudsen has also said that he recruited Olson as a way to challenge some of Montana’s campaign laws.

 “I just happen to think that this system we’ve got in place, you know, where we’re you’re encouraged to to to run against a sitting incumbent in order to let that incumbent raise more money. I happen to think that’s pretty silly,” Knudsen said on KGEZ.

However, Knudsen was a longtime Republican lawmaker in the Montana Legislature before successfully running for attorney general. That tenure included four years, 2015 through 2019, as the Speaker of the House, with a majority of Republicans. That position has arguably the most influence on how legislation is prioritized and what topics get attention.

Meanwhile, despite the allegations that he recruited Olson simply to raise more money, a number of residents voting on the Republican primary ballot on Tuesday supported the Flaxville-based attorney who works at the same law firm where Knudsen used to be employed.

Still, despite not appearing to have campaigned, Olson took 18% of the vote against Knudsen, with the Montana Secretary of State’s Office showing Olson garnering 31,627 to Knudsen’s 146,740.

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, a nonprofit newsroom.