COPP dismisses campaign finance charges against Vent Missoula Facebook group

The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices has dismissed a complaint filed against a right-leaning Facebook group that rose to prominence during the recent Missoula city elections and often targeted left-leaning candidates, including the city’s incumbent mayor.

In late October, Missoula resident Bryce Bennett filed a campaign finance complaint against the Facebook page Vent Missoula, claiming it had failed to properly classify itself as a political committee and disclose expenditures.

The page was initially created by Brendon Naasz and turned over to Tyler Theisen.

“This dismissal is based on the principle of excusable neglect, given the first-time nature of this determination and the likelihood that there are other individuals, candidates, and committees in a similarly deficient reporting status,” political practices commissioner Jeff Mangan determined.

In his complaint, Bennett argued that Vent Missoula paid to boost and sponsor posts attacking local candidates. While local municipal elections are held under non-partisan status, most of those candidates were supported by the Missoula Democratic Central Committee.

In boosting posts, Bennett contended, Vent Missoula should have provided campaign finance reports and a list of contributors and expenditures, as required of other political action committees.

Mangan agreed in part, saying that when an individual or group chooses to pay to boost or promote a post, it is considered advertising. However, of the 17 posts boosted by Vent Missoula, the investigation determined that none were considered election communication.

However, six were considered electioneering.

“The six paid posts constituting electioneering communications included a likeness or full name of a candidate involved in the 2017 Missoula County municipal election, and did not indicate support or opposition to the candidate,” Mangan concluded.

Bennett also argued in his complaint that Vent Missoula was serving as a political committee, which under state law is defined as a combination of two or more individuals who make an expenditure to support or oppose a candidate.

Mangan determined that Vent Missoula was created by a single individual and found no evidence to suggest that more than one person conspired to promote the site’s attacks on local candidates.

“The Vent Missoula Facebook page was created by an individual, Brendon Naasz, and turned over to another individual, Tyler Theisen,” Mangan wrote. “They did not create the page together and did not together create or disseminate election or electioneering communications on the Vent Missoula Facebook page.”

As Missoula’s Nov. 7 election approached, Mangan was confronted with a number of campaign finance complaints. In one, local attorney Quinten Rhoades alleged that Mayor John Engen had accepted corporate contributions in the form of an office used as campaign headquarters, as well as a local newspaper’s paid Facebook ad promoting its own endorsement of the mayor.

Mangan dismissed the complaint on Oct. 27.

In late October, however, Mangan found mayoral candidate Lisa Triepke in violation of several campaign finance laws stemming from a complaint filed by Missoula resident Ellie Hill.

Among the violations, Triepke failed to report and disclose more than $18,000 in expenditures made to Spiker Communication, a local marketing firm that supported her campaign. That investigation has been turned over to the Lewis and Clark County attorney’s office for possible prosecution.