By Michael Howell
According to Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, Richard and Valerie Stamey filed a false campaign finance report in 2011 with the intention of misleading the Commissioner’s staff concerning a previous settlement agreement. Motl notes that this action is a violation of Montana criminal code as well as a violation of a few civil codes. He invokes the criminal statute in his decision.
The violation came to light when Bitterroot Star reporter Michael Howell was investigating the Stameys’ political activities in Ravalli County in relation to the recent events at the treasurer’s office. It was discovered that the Stameys had falsely claimed an in-kind donation from the Bitterroot Star as part of their closing campaign finance report for the 2010 elections in which Richard Stamey ran against Gary MacLaren in the primary. Bitterroot Star publisher Victoria Howell filed an official complaint with the Commissioner’s office about the matter.
Commissioner Motl notes in his discussion of the case that the small amount of money involved is not the real issue. He said the real issue is a serious violation of the public trust.
In February 2010, Richard Stamey filed as a Republican candidate for HD 89 and Valerie Stamey was listed as his treasurer. The Stamey campaign then took out two campaign advertisements with the Bitterroot Star newspaper. One ad, for $115, was paid in advance. The other ad, at a cost of $162.75, was billed to the Stamey campaign.
Stamey was defeated in the June 8, 2010 election by Gary MacLaren. But MacLaren also filed a complaint alleging violation of campaign finance laws. Stamey had missed both his pre- and post-filing deadlines for campaign finance reporting. Stamey answered the complaint on July 6, 2010 and late-filed his only campaign finance report on July 15, 2010.
On July 27, 2011, the Commissioner of Political Practices issued his decision in regard to MacLaren’s complaints and found multiple violations of the Montana Campaign Practices Act, including late filing of reports. Following that decision the Commissioner’s staff attempted to resolve the decision with the Stameys.
Motl said in his recent ruling that “the report managed to violate nearly every applicable campaign law.” The report was untimely, listed contributions in excess of limits, and showed $162 more in expenditures than in contributions without showing where that debt remained.
Motl said that both before and following that decision, in June 27, 2011, “talking primarily with Valerie,” the Stameys claimed “they were campaign novices who were suffering from health problems and asked for mediation.” Motl said that mitigations were applied, reducing the fine amount to $100, “so long as the Stameys also resolved the campaign debt allowing the closing of the campaign report.”
That closing report was filed on September 29, 2011 and was certified by Richard Stamey and signed by Valerie Stamey. In that report the Stameys claimed that on September 1, 2011, the Bitterroot Star gave an in-kind credit to the Stamey campaign, allowing the filing of the closing report.
Bitterroot Star co-publisher Victoria Howell told the investigator for the Commissioner’s office that the debt had been continually billed to the Stameys throughout 2011. She stated that the campaign debt was never forgiven, “nor has any other such campaign debt ever been given for any other candidate,” said Howell.
Motl notes that, when asked, the Stameys were unable to produce any document or evidence that could have led them to reasonably believe that the Bitterroot Star had forgiven the debt.
Motl concludes that “the closing report filed by the Stamey campaign, as witnessed by Richard Stamey and signed by Valerie Stamey, was false.”
He also found that the closing report “invited reliance on a writing that the person knows to be… lacking in authenticity, with the purpose to mislead a public servant in performing an official function.” He determines that the closing report was false; without any supporting basis in fact; was produced as part of a settlement agreement; and was made for the purpose of misleading the Commissioner’s staff, who relied on the closing report for completion of the conditions of settlement. He notes that unsworn falsification is a violation of criminal codes 45-7-202, 203 or 208 MCA, as well as a few civil statutes.
Motl found that the Stamey campaign failed to resolve a campaign debt to the Bitterroot Star. He dismisses the option of “de minimus” and states that it does not apply “because the limited amount of money is not the focus of the complaint nor is it the issue addressed in the Decision.”
“The holding of public office in Montana is a public trust,” states Motl. “An electoral campaign is the first step that a candidate takes toward gaining a position accompanied by such a duty of public trust. Accordingly, a campaign is an appropriate lens on the qualities and abilities of a candidate to accept and accommodate the requirements of public trust… Richard and Valerie Stamey did not rise to the task of meeting the indices of public trust, but instead failed in multiple ways and in multiple instances. These failures far exceed any de minimus standard,” wrote Motl.
Motl also rejects the notion of “excusable neglect” and states, “There are sufficient facts to show that Valerie and Richard Stamey acted with intent, not neglect.” He finds that civil prosecution and/or a civil fine is justified. The matter will be submitted to the Lewis and Clark County attorney for review and possible prosecution. If not acted upon in 30 days the matter will return to the Commissioner of Political Practices office and may be taken to district court. This time the Commissioner has determined that mitigation of the matter is not an option, “given the sufficiency of facts showing knowledge and intent.”
The Commissioner also determined that, along with the civil penalties that are warranted, criminal penalties, including possible jail time, are also warranted.
The Commissioner further notes that, “Valerie Stamey is a candidate for public office and her candidacy, should she be nominated in a primary election, could be challenged by an elector under the law should this matter be successfully adjudicated by the Commissioner.”