Last month, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan put candidates and committees throughout Montana on notice: His office will be cracking down on detail.

The notice came in a decision on Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades’ complaint against Mayor John Engen. Rhoades took issue with Engen’s 2017 campaign expenditure disclosures—specifically, the vagueness of entries like “rent” and “campaign services.” Mangan agreed, even broadening the critique to include entries for “postage.” The Engen camp amended one such entry to “postage—320 stamps.”

A cursory glance at disclosure reports filed by past candidates suggests the use of broad descriptors like “campaign services” has been commonplace till now. But while campaigns and committees face a more stringent standard heading into 2018, the same can’t be said for those already elected, appointed or hired to state posts. The Montana Department of Administration oversees several online transparency portals designed to deliver public access to state agency expenditures of taxpayer money. Here, detail is lacking.

For example, on Aug. 21, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recorded a $10,329 payment to the Boone and Crockett Club, and, on Oct. 23, a $3,115 payment to Alan Madison Productions. The portal offers no additional information. We had to turn to FWP Chief of Staff Paul Sihler, who informed us that the $10,329 was for lodging, food and facility rental for wildlife attack response training. The $3,115 was for 35 copies of a hunter education video series.

Similarly, the Department of Justice paid $394.69 to American Flag and Banner in July, and recorded August and October payments of $509.75 and $4,893.90 to a vendor called Snow King. For what? Communications Director Eric Sell explains the first expense was for camera poles for crime scene vans. The second two were for lodging at the Snow King Hotel in Jackson Hole during the 2017 Eight States Chiefs Conference.

According to DOA spokesperson Amber Conger, Montana has twice won an A- rating from U.S. PIRG for government transparency. But if $250 spent by Engen demands more clarity than “event entertainment,” shouldn’t the same go for, say, the $6,177.12 paid by DOJ to “SHAMROCKGLA”? (It was for crime lab supplies from Shamrock Glass). These transparency portals are subject to upgrades. Perhaps the next such can help us bag that elusive A+.

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