"Stacked" ad

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Members of the governor’s coronavirus relief fund advisory council are criticizing a recent TV advertisement from the Senate Leadership Fund.

The 30-second ad, which was released Aug. 12, says Gov. Steve Bullock “stacked his coronavirus relief task force with his own campaign donors and many of them stand to benefit.”

The ad also says that while small businesses are struggling, by late July, Bullock had only provided them with 13% of the $1.25 billion that Montana had received from the federal government for COVID-19 relief.

The council, in a column signed by 17 of the 24 members and sent to state newspapers, said that the group’s work was not politically motivated and that 11 members have never donated to Bullock, who is in a tight race for U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Steve Daines. They also said they didn’t stand to personally benefit from the group’s work.

“We would not have been able to respond as effectively if we were mired in political or personal agendas,” they wrote.

The council met several times in April and reviewed 1,400 public comments to create recommendations for how Bullock should spend the federal COVID-19 relief money.

Bullock has since used the council’s recommendations to create more than a dozen programs that aim to assist businesses, nonprofits, residents and local governments.

Bullock’s campaign sent out a news release on Wednesday about the council’s column, saying most members of the council haven’t supported Bullock financially and that several members have contributed to his opponents.

“In the op-ed, the advisory council sets the record straight, detailing how the council’s diverse composition is what allowed them to make recommendations that are in the best interests of all Montanans,” the release said.

About $327 million of the $1.25 billion had been distributed, according to the Department of Commerce’s website.

Bullock has defended his handling of the federal money, saying significantly more has been allocated than has been spent and some must be saved for future needs.

Julia Doyle, with Daines’ campaign, said there is a difference between allocating money and getting it to people.

“With nearly a billion dollars sitting in a Helena bank account, I’d encourage Gov. Bullock to be spending his time getting this relief to Montanans who need it, not playing politics with his donors,” Doyle said.

The Senate Leadership Fund stands by the ad.

“Not one single fact in our ad is disputed by this letter,” said spokesman Jack Pandol about the council’s column. “The truth is, Gov. Bullock did stack his task force with a majority of high-value donors and allowed them to meet behind closed doors in violation of Montana’s open meeting laws, leveraging the pandemic to pay back his supporters.”

Fox News has reported that “several high dollar donors” for Bullock were on the task force. The Fox News article lists several council members who had donated between about $400 and $10,000 over the last 12 years to Bullock’s campaigns for state offices or his run for U.S. Senate.

The Montana Free Press has reported the council’s meetings may have violated the state’s open meeting laws by not allowing the public to attend.

The Senate Leadership Fund is a super PAC working to maintain the Republican majority in the Senate.

The ad, titled “Stacked,” was part of $6.1 million the group spent in Montana in August, according to a news release from the group.

Outside groups have spent millions on ads in the race, which has garnered national interest because a Bullock victory could flip the Senate.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of relief money that had been distributed.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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