Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Realtors and a political committee hit with campaign finance complaints argued a poll conducted to vet their mayoral candidate had such little value, they didn’t need to report it.

Missoula Organization of Realtors, National Association of Realtors Fund, and Missoula Mayor Independent Committee are supporting Realtor and Councilor Mike Nugent for mayor in the city of Missoula.

All three responded this week to a campaign finance complaint and said the Commissioner of Political Practices should find them to be in “full compliance with Montana campaign finance laws.”

The National Association of Realtors group has poured $125,000 into the mayor’s primary race, an amount that dwarfs the dollars individual candidates have raised on their own and an infusion that appears to be a first in a local race in Montana.

But the significant spending by the national group also has elicited political backlash — a former mayor rescinded his endorsement of Nugent — and six allegations of campaign finance violations with the Commissioner of Political Practices.

This week, the local and national Realtors groups along with the Missoula Mayor committee responded to one complaint alleging, in part, a political poll with an estimated value of at least $15,000 to $25,000 should have been reported.

The groups disagreed. In three separate responses, in some cases with the same language, the groups acknowledged the poll was conducted but argued it didn’t have enough value to be reported.

None of the groups disclosed the cost of the poll in their letters responding to the Commissioner of Political Practices.

Missoula Mayor committee co-treasurer Jim Bachand declined Wednesday to share the cost of the poll. Bachand also is CEO of the Missoula Organization of Realtors.

In their responses, the national and local Realtors said the commissioner should dismiss the complaint given the office’s task to promote in part “transparency and accountability” in the democratic process.

“In that vein, NAR Fund urges COPP to ignore the non-factual assumptions and undocumented assertions littering Mr. Pearson’s complaint and focus solely on the law and facts,” said the response from the National Association of Realtors Fund; the Missoula Organization of Realtors said the same.

Retired campaign management and public policy consultant C.B. Pearson filed the complaint.

The Realtors note Pearson has publicly supported incumbent Mayor Jordan Hess; Pearson has acknowledged support for Hess but also said he filed the complaint on his own behalf, is not being paid by the Hess campaign, and volunteers his time.

In its response to the complaint, the National Association of Realtors Fund said when it receives a grant request to support a candidate, in almost all cases, the program “requires a candidate viability poll to be conducted.”

But the letter said the National Association of Realtors paid for the poll, and the affiliated NAR Fund did not. The Missoula Organization of Realtors said the same.

“NAR (not MOR) paid for a candidate viability poll to determine the political landscape of the Missoula mayoral race,” said the Missoula Organization of Realtors. “The value of the poll, therefore, was to both NAR and MOR, not in relation to any IE (independent expenditure) or other political/candidate support activity.”

The letter from the National Association of Realtors Fund said the poll was run to identify whether Nugent was “a viable candidate in the race,” not to persuade voters or support or oppose a particular candidate, “contrary to allegations in the complaint.” The MOR also said the poll helped identify “which candidates to focus on.”

Screenshots of questions asked in the poll show it posed some questions about all potential candidates, along with a series of specific questions about Nugent. The screenshots of the poll, which took place before the filing deadline, don’t show a similar series of questions about other potential candidates.

Nugent is trying to unseat incumbent and fellow Democrat Mayor Jordan Hess and fend off three other candidates, Democrat Andrea Davis and independents Shawn Knopp and Brandi Atanasoff; the top two vote-getters will advance to the general election.

Nugent has said his campaign is not coordinating with the Realtor-backed committee that’s supporting him, nor was he involved in the poll.

In their response, the national Realtors argue the poll didn’t have value to the independent committee since the survey took place one month before the local Realtors applied for a grant to support Nugent and roughly two months before the local committee formed.

“In light of the time differential between when the poll was run (April) and when the IE [independent expenditure] began (June), any information associated with the poll significantly if not entirely became valueless,” the Realtors argued.

They also argued the commissioner would need to choose which questions were valuable to the committee and then cut their value down based on the time from when the poll took place and when the committee formed, the national group said, noting its response “presumed use of the poll.”

The Missoula Mayor committee made the same argument: “If COPP deems there is value, it would need to identify the individual questions that would be valuable to the Missoula Mayor IE and then reduce that value even more due to the lapse in time between when the poll was run and when the Incident Committee actual(ly) begins using the poll, which happens to be today, August 14th, 2023.”

However, all three respondents argued that even if the Commissioner of Political Practices finds the poll was a contribution, he should deem its value to be “de minimus,” or “so small that it does not trigger” reporting or disclosure.

This week, Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus said his office likely will determine in the next week or two whether to proceed with an investigation into the complaint by Pearson and an earlier complaint against the Realtors.

However, Gallus also confirmed his office does have the authority to request additional information at this stage, such as the cost of the poll, should more details be relevant in a decision about whether to proceed with an investigation.

The earlier complaint, filed by Derek Goldman, alleged the committee failed to disclose information about which candidate it is supporting, an allegation the committee said it rectified even before the complaint was filed.

However, in a piece explaining the reason he filed a complaint, Goldman notes a lack of transparency with political expenditures; he points to a billboard that indicates it’s paid for by the “Missoula Mayor” committee but gives the public no indication the national Realtors group is funding it.

In its response, the Missoula Mayor committee said it is committed to implementing any recommendations from the commissioner and “transparency is paramount.”