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Montana Commissioner of Political Practices opens complaints against AG candidates

by DARRELL EHRLICK Daily Montanan
| May 19, 2024 12:00 AM

The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, the state’s top election and campaign enforcement official, has accepted two complaints that center on the Republican primary race for attorney general, including one involving current state Attorney General Austin Knudsen.

Earlier this week, the Daily Montanan reported that at an event last Saturday, an audio recording obtained by the news organization appeared to capture Knudsen calling Montana’s campaign finance laws “ridiculous” and saying that he asked a friend to run against him in the partisan primary as a way to raise more money.

Logan Olson, a Republican who appears on the ballot, is also the Daniels County Attorney. Olson appears to have done little in the way of campaigning. Prior to the complaints being filed, the COPP said recruiting a candidate to run under false premises could be a campaign violation.

In a follow-up story, the Daily Montanan reported that Olson doesn’t appear to meet the constitutional requirements for running as the state’s attorney general. State law requires an attorney to be practicing for five years from the time of election.

Olson was not admitted to the Montana bar until September 2020, although some courts have counted time in law school toward the requirement.

The Daily Montanan has reached out to both of the campaigns, and neither responded for this request or requests previously to discuss the situation.

On Wednesday, Sheila Hogan, the executive director for the Montana Democratic Party, filed two complaints with the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices, alleging that both Knudsen and Olson have broken the law.

For Knudsen, the investigation would mark another state agency looking into his conduct. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel has already charged Knudsen, the state’s top lawyer, with 41 ethics violations, pending before the Montana Supreme Court, the official governing body of the state’s bar.

Through his attorney, Knudsen has denied the allegations of ethics violations and said he was only “zealously representing his client.”

The allegations in the complaint filed this week say that Olson and Knudsen hatched the scheme for Olson to join the race, apparently in order to raise more money heading into the general election where Knudsen will face opponent Ben Alke, a Democrat.

The complaint against Olson also claims that he has broken state law by filing to run for the office, and he’s not qualified because of the five-year practice requirement.

“Currently, Olson practices at the same law firm where Knudsen worked before becoming Attorney General,” the complaint states.

In addition to working as the Daniels County Attorney, Olson lists his employment with the O’Toole Law Firm, according to his LinkedIn page.

While Knudsen filed to run for re-election on Nov. 6, 2023, Olson did not file until the final day of eligibility, March 11, 2024. As part of the filing process, Olson had to swear an oath that he was qualified to run, a false oath the Democratic Party contends.

The Montana Constitution, Article VI, Section 3 says that an attorney general must have be “an attorney in good standing admitted to practice law in Montana who has engaged in the active practice thereof for at least five years before the election.”

In at least a couple of cases, courts have found that time in law school counts toward the five years.

The Democrats’ complaint filed on Wednesday also points out that Olson has raised $0 during his campaign, and his reports list no donations, fundraising events or travel.

“Both Austin Knudsen and Logan Olson have the same treasurer and campaign manager, Katie Wenetta of Burning Tree Consulting,” the complaint said. “This clear tie between the two ‘campaigns’ is egregious and possibly unlawful.”

The Montana Democrats are asking that the Commissioner of Political Practices remove his name from the ballot and fine Olson.

Meanwhile, the complaint against Knudsen asks that the Commissioner of Political Practices order Knudsen to return any amount more than $790, the amount he can legally raise without a primary opponent.

The Commissioner of Political Practices doesn’t accept every complaint as warranting an investigation but determined Thursday he will move ahead on the two in this case.