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The Montana Democratic Party has filed a campaign finance complaint against Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, alleging he improperly raised primary funds during the general election.

The complaint is the latest in a string of complaints filed with the commissioner of political practices in the governor’s race between Gianforte and Democrat Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney.

The complaint, filed last week, is tied to a $1.55 million loan Gianforte gave his campaign for the primary election.

State law says candidates can raise money during the general election specifically to pay off debt from their primary campaign. By loaning himself money for the primary and then using donations collected during the general election to repay himself, the Montana Democrats allege Gianforte is circumventing state campaign finance limits.

“Campaign finance law clearly states that donors are only able to contribute $710 for the primary election, and $710 for the general election,” said spokesperson Nathan Stein. “By accepting primary funds during the general election, Gianforte is effectively able to raise twice as much from individual donors during the general election — in direct violation of campaign finance limits — due solely to the fact that he’s in a position to ‘loan’ himself millions of dollars at a time.”

Gianforte’s campaign manager Jake Eaton called the complaint “ridiculous.”

“When campaigns are losing they become desperate and do silly things — that’s exactly what career politician Mike Cooney and the Montana Democratic Party are doing here.” Eaton said. “It’s a frivolous complaint, and Montana Democrats are trying to distract voters from career politician Mike Cooney’s own ethics troubles and his 44 years of failure in state government.”

Recent polls have shown the race is close. A poll released Wednesday from Montana State University indicates that Gianforte leads 47% to Cooney’s 42%, although the race is within the margin of error as 7% of voters said they were undecided.

Gianforte has also outraised Cooney, bringing in $6 million — including $3.5 million of his own money — while Cooney has raised $2.5 million.

There is no timeline for if or when the commissioner of political practices will take action on the Montana Democrats’ complaint.

The Montana Democratic Party has filed two other complaints related to Gianforte’s campaign.

In July, the Democrats alleged Gianforte had not included the required “paid for by” attribution on campaign materials.

The commissioner of political practices gave Gianforte the opportunity to fix the mistake. Gianforte’s campaign said the omission was an oversight, stopped distributing the materials and said all future materials would have correct attribution, according to documents from the commissioner’s office.

Because Gianforte’s campaign rectified the mistake, the commissioner dismissed the complaint.

Also in July, the Montana Democrats submitted a complaint alleging Gianforte’s campaign coordinated illegally with Montana First Action, a political action committee, to bypass campaign donation limits.

The commissioner has yet to make a decision on the complaint.

In July, Cooney was ordered to pay the maximum fine of $1,000 for violating the state’s ethics code by participating in a campaign video call this spring from his state office in Helena.

Then, in September, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust and the Montana Republican Party filed complaints against Cooney and the Democratic Governors Association. They allege the Democratic Governors Association illegally coordinated with Cooney and exceeded the $710 contribution limit through work it did on the “Greg GianforTax” advertising campaign.

The Cooney campaign said the complaints were baseless.

“That claim is absurd — a ‘coordinated expenditure’ is paid by a person other than the candidate, yet the ‘GianforTAX’ video was paid for by the Cooney campaign, rendering it impossible to be considered a ‘coordinated expenditure,’” said Cooney campaign spokesperson Ronja Abel. “Rather, the GOP’s frivolous complaints are blatant attempts by the Gianforte campaign to muddy the waters on their clearly unlawful and unethical efforts to circumvent Montana’s campaign finance law.”

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

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