Missoula attorney files finance complaint against mayor; campaign pushes back

Missoula Mayor John Engen

A Missoula attorney filed a complaint with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices late Wednesday alleging Mayor John Engen’s reelection campaign failed to report corporate contributions, including that of a local newspaper that came in the form of a boosted post on Facebook.

Among the allegations filed with the state, Quentin Rhoades contends that Engen is paying less than market rent for a campaign office located on S. Fourth Street West.

In his complaint, Rhoades said the campaign reported a $300 expenditure in September to Zillastate Realty while the fair market rate for the office is listed on Zestimate at $1,650 a month. Rhoades believes the difference in the amount paid and the fair market rate constitutes a campaign contribution.

“The campaign is paying rent at a rate that is about $1,350 below market value,” Rhoades argues in his complaint. “No corresponding in-kind contribution appears in (the) campaign finance report.”

Melanie Brock, a spokesperson for the mayor’s campaign, said Thursday that Engen was subleasing a small portion of a larger office and therefore was not required to pay the lease for the entire unit.

“We provided the commissioner with documentation about the small space we rent inside a larger office suite for the Engen campaign,” Brock said. “We pay a downtown Missoula fair market value lease rate for the space and follow Montana’s campaign finance laws. We look forward to the commissioner’s office reviewing the matter.”

A decision could come as soon as Friday.

Rhoades also contends that Engen received a corporate contribution from the Missoulian when the newspaper boosted its own endorsement of the mayor in a Facebook ad. It costs roughly $10 to boost a story on Facebook to a larger audience.

“The newspaper has been owned by a corporate entity … since 1959,” Rhoades said in his complaint. “Thus, the Engen campaign appears to have accepted a corporate contribution.”

Brock said the Commissioner of Political Practices did not ask the Engen campaign to respond to the issue regarding the Missoulian’s sponsored ad, suggesting the media is free to boost its own content on social media without constituting a campaign contribution.

Rhoades’ campaign finance complaint follows roughly one month after Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, filed a complaint against the Lisa Triepke for Mayor campaign, alleging it didn’t properly report thousands of dollars raised and spent over the fall.

Last week, the Commissioner of Political Practices found that Triepke’s campaign had, in fact, violated state law by failing to disclose $18,313 in expenditures made to Spiker Communications. That case has been referred to the Lewis and Clark County attorney’s office, though Triepke said she was working to resolve the issue.

At his office Thursday, Rhoades suggested the Missoulian’s endorsement of the mayor and its sponsored Facebook ad suggests it had coordinated with Engen’s campaign.

He also believes that a Missoulian story regarding the mayor’s opponent and items she purchased after her divorce was intentionally timed to coincide with the release of this year’s election ballots.