Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Billings Gazette and its improperly reported campaign contributions

Montana Headlines would really be remiss were we to ignore the good job that David Crisp and the Billings Outpost have done in highlighting (with appropriate levels of caution) the sticky situation that the Billings Gazette has gotten into due to its involvement in "Celebrate Billings." This organization campaigned for mill levy increases in Billings.

The Gazette made in-kind contributions of essentially free (there was some "creative accounting," it seems, so it is taking time to tease out the details) advertising to the group. It should be made clear that the Gazette doesn't appear to have tried to hide anything. The contributions seem to have been reported, but what is at issue is whether the proper reporting and filing procedures were followed.

The Outpost pieces are all worth reading.

One of the interesting things is that there seems to have been foot-dragging on the part of the Billings Gazette.

The Gazette was informed in mid-October by the Commissioner of Political Practices that it was required to file as an "incidental political committee," but it isn't clear from the reporting that it ever did so. As we recall, once a candidate or political entity has been told to file something regarding campaign finances, there is usually a very short (often 5 day) window in which to comply.

Instead, the next item in the time-line appears to be a letter from the Gazette dated late November, written to the commissioner of political practices.

It would seem that the right thing to do would be for the Gazette to file immediately as they were told they should do -- and then try to straighten it out after the fact if they felt that the Commissioner was wrong in his decision and instructions to them.

Is this what happened? It isn't completely clear, unless we missed something in the published reports.

We would agree with Crisp:

Naturally, I was skeptical about the whole Celebrate Billings project from the git-go. Daily newspapers exert considerable influence just from their natural role. To try to leverage additional influence using nonprofit partners stretches my understanding of what a newspaper's place in the community ought to be.

Indeed. We hope to hear more on this as information comes to light, and one hopes that the Gazette will keep its politicking to the editorial page in the future.

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