Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) The Montana GOP said the Democratic candidate for governor is illegally spending money on his wife’s communications company — but Democrat Ryan Busse, challenging the Republican incumbent, alleges Gov. Greg Gianforte improperly funneled $1 million to his campaign manager’s companies.

Both candidates deny the allegations in the respective complaints filed this month with the Commissioner of Political Practices.

Busse claims Gianforte paid campaign manager Jake Eaton and other staff affiliated with the campaign more than $1 million through Eaton’s companies. The payments are disclosed in financial reports, but the Busse campaign says they violate the law against “secret pass-through payments.”

Gianforte campaign spokesperson Anna Marian Block said in a statement Friday the campaign is in full compliance with the law.

“This complaint is nothing more than a desperate attempt to distract voters from the fact that Ryan Busse is trailing in the polls by 21%,” Block said.

Meanwhile, the Montana Republican Party alleges the Busse campaign allocated several thousand dollars to his wife’s communications company in violation of a law prohibiting surplus funds going to candidates for “personal benefit,” which includes family members.

In a response filed Friday, Busse’s campaign called the complaint “utterly meritless” and said contrary to the allegations, the communications work is being done by an experienced professional and legally must be compensated.

Busse: Gianforte isn’t disclosing payments to staff for campaign work

Eaton owns consulting firm The Political Company as well as political sign printing shop and marketing firm Ultra Graphics, both in Billings. The Busse campaign’s complaint, filed Friday, lists more than 25 payments from Gianforte’s campaigns to both companies between March and June of this year. The campaign says Gianforte should have made those payments to Eaton personally, instead of through his companies, for his consulting work.

Eaton noted in his email Friday political parties can submit expenditures for campaigns and noted the Montana Republican State Central Committee report is where the expenses for staff are listed, including his own. The committee’s report for the first quarter of the year notes The Political Company was paid three installments of $12,500, as well as salaries for staff listed in the complaint.

The complaint, authored by Busse staffer Emily Harris, said the Gianforte campaign has previously this election cycle tried to sidestep accountability for including false information about immigration in an ad. After taking the ad down, the campaign told Montana’s ABC/Fox affiliate the ad was done by an “outside contractor”and the campaign decided to remove it. Busse’s camp is claiming the ad was created by Eaton’s company, basing that off the time of the ad and when it was published.

Busse’s complaint also claims it is implausible Gianforte raised $1.2 million from when he officially became a candidate in January, but doesn’t point to concrete evidence Gianforte started raising money prior to becoming a candidate other than campaign contribution amounts being suspicious. Busse believes because the donations were all the same amount and at the maximum amount that could be donated by one person at a time, $2,240, it raises concern as it doesn’t match donation amounts from in person events which were around $100.

Harris wrote Gianforte started campaign activities earlier than is legally allowed as an internal poll came out days after he officially became a candidate, but also made the claim on “information and belief.”

The complaint also listed a number of staffers that claim through social media as well as in news reports to be affiliated with the campaign, but are not included in the expenditures for the campaign.

Harris also listed more than 20 expenditures from Gianforte’s campaign saying the descriptions were too vague and did not comply with the same statute referenced in the complaint against Busse for signs and media placement.

The Busse campaign also said money “passed through Eaton’s companies goes to other Republican-aligned vendors—payments Gianforte conceals from his reporting.” The complaint did not list which vendors, though.

GOP: Busse giving campaign funds to wife for communications work

The complaint from the state GOP, signed June 14, says Busse’s campaign paid Aspen Communications, owned by Sarah Swan Busse, a total of just more than $12,000 for communications and fundraising consulting, as well as car mileage. Sara Swan Busse is Ryan Busse’s wife.

The complaint also said candidate Busse receives a salary from Aspen Communications, which the campaign refutes as not affiliated with the election.

But because the salary would directly benefit Busse and his wife, the GOP alleges Busse is in violation of state law that prohibits surplus campaign funds from directly benefiting candidates or their family members.

The Busse campaign, in a response authored by campaign manager Aaron Murphy, said Sara Busse is an “independent experienced professional” and her work legally must be compensated fairly.

It listed her experience in the field working on western district democratic candidate Monica Tranel’s Congressional campaign during the 2022 election cycle.

The Busse camp also said the statute cited by the GOP regarding personal benefit from campaign funds isn’t relevant as it concerns how funds are dealt with after the campaign, not during. Murphy wrote the GOP likely meant to cite an administrative rule saying candidates cannot use campaign funds for personal use, but he said the campaign didn’t break that rule either.

“All expenditures and reimbursements to Sara Busse and Aspen Communications are directly connected to her fundraising and communications work for the campaign—they support the campaign and would not exist without it,” the response read.

“The campaign’s contract with Aspen Communications is not to compensate Ryan Busse. Ryan Busse receives no compensation from the campaign (excluding reimbursements for mileage, etc.),” the response read. “Ryan Busse’s occasional work for Aspen Communications, as listed on his personal disclosure, is entirely separate and distinct from the campaign.”

Murphy also said if hiring spouses was at issue, it would call into question the ethics of the state paying attorney Emily Jones, wife of Gianforte’s campaign manager Jake Eaton, for her work as an attorney with the state.

The GOP complaint also said Busse’s campaign was not thorough in its description of the services paid for with campaign funds, as is required in statute.

This included a $250,000 ad buy from media strategy company Left Hook with the description “statewide broadcast tv ad buy” and a nearly $7,800 purchase from progressive campaign sign producer Blue Deal with the description “signs.”

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus said the timeline for determining whether his office will move forward with a formal investigation in the complaint against Busse is not known at this time. His office will send a letter Monday requesting Gianforte’s response to the complaint by Busse.