Because many of us attend parties during the holiday season, I must warn you to not try to understand Jake Eaton’s political practices complaint against Gene Jarussi if you have even the slightest hangover. Like almost everything related to campaign finance law in Montana, Eaton’s allegations are a headache amplifier.
The essence of Eaton’s complaint is that Jarussi and his wife, Karen, operated a political action committee that benefited the 2016 re-election campaign of Rep. Jessica Karjala, D–Billings, during the same time that Karen served as a “paid agent” of the Karjala campaign. Such coordination would violate Montana law, which applies different fundraising and reporting requirements to PACs and the candidates they support.
According to Eaton’s complaint, the Jarussis traveled to San Antonio to conduct a videotaped interview with a former classmate of Karjala’s opponent, Robert Saunders, in which the classmate said Saunders made racist remarks when they were attending Patrick Henry College. Eaton says the Jarussis should have reported at least part of their expenses for the trip as contributions to the Karjala campaign.
At this point, I assume most of you have begun flipping through the paper in search of Ziggy comics. The substance of Eaton’s allegations is technical and boring. The context, however, is a lot more interesting.
Gene Jarussi served as a special attorney in a series of campaign-finance cases that the former Montana commissioner of political practices, Jonathan Motl, brought against Republican organizations over the past few years. Eaton is a witness in one such case against the Montana Growth Network. In July, a judge sanctioned Eaton’s wife, Billings attorney Emily Jones, and ordered her to pay about $15,000 in legal fees to Jarussi, after determining that she had illegally told other witnesses to withhold evidence.
It’s possible that Eaton may have more than just a citizen’s interest in seeing the Jarussis brought to law. His political practices complaint against the opposing counsel in his wife’s defense of his fellow Republicans against political practices complaints could be politically motivated. But the Jarussis’ explanation seems suspect, too.
Speaking to John S. Adams for a story in the Montana Free Press, Gene Jarussi said the couple traveled to San Antonio to visit a sick relative. They just happened to be there when Karjala sent his wife a Facebook message about Saunders’ former classmate, whom Karen says they interviewed “on our own behalf, to satisfy our own curiosity about Saunders’ background and character.” They were presumably also acting in their capacity as curious voters when they gave a video of the interview to the Billings Gazette.
This explanation could be true. Who can say why the Jarussis went to San Antonio, or what Gene thought when Karen got a message from Rep. Karjala about how a woman in town had a damning story to tell about her opponent? Consideration of their behavior alone leaves coordination indistinguishable from curiosity. The question is not what the Jarussis did, but why they did it. That’s a recurring flaw in Montana’s vague and increasingly weaponized campaign finance laws.
From a voter’s perspective, a political action committee that supports one candidate is functionally the same as a campaign. But the distinction makes all the difference under current law. Campaigns face strict fundraising and reporting requirements, which are looser for PACs and other legal entities that operate at varying degrees of remove from the candidates they support.
These laws encourage political operatives and donors to form bogus “social welfare organizations” that are campaigns in all but name. The stipulation that PACs not “coordinate” with the candidates they were created to support encourages hypocrisy. The law calls on people like the Jarussis to deny what they are evidently doing, creating a campaign-finance landscape in which everyone is guilty and innocent simultaneously.
The parties in the Jarussi-Karjala-Eaton case are arguing about the letter of the law while they twist its spirit to the extreme. The voter who reads about it might be forgiven for concluding that the whole thing is politics, and that campaign finance law is a cudgel to be wielded by whichever party controls the Political Practices Commission. That’s what Republicans said when Motl was doing the best job of any commissioner in memory. That’s what Eaton said when he filed his complaint against Jarussi.
“Since it has become the practice of the Commissioner’s office to appoint Democrat lawyers to pursue cases against Republican officeholders and organizations,” he wrote, “I would hope that the Commissioner would continue to apply the same practice and appoint a Republican lawyer to pursue this case.”
That’s a sign Montana’s campaign finance law has become an instrument of politics rather than a check on it. In this second Gilded Age, it’s important to keep money from influencing our elections as much as we can. We ought to find a better way to do it, before the corruption spreads.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and baldfaced hypocrisy at combatblog.net.