Troy Downing

Troy Downing

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U.S. Senate candidate Troy Downing of Big Sky is receiving a tax break on property he jointly owns with his wife, Heather, in California, an exemption that is for homeowners if the home is their primary residence.

The Chronicle obtained a copy of Downing’s property tax bill for a Sleeping Indian Road residence he owns in Fallbrook, California, about 60 miles north of San Diego.

The San Diego County assessor’s office confirmed that he had been receiving the homeowner’s tax exemption since 2005. The most recent property tax bill for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and ending June 30, 2018, showed Downing received the exemption.

Downing’s residency recently came under scrutiny after he received several citations from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for allegedly obtaining Montana resident hunting licenses unlawfully. Downing’s campaign, though, has adamantly claimed that Big Sky is his primary residence.

San Diego County Division Chief for Assessment Services Jeff Olson said Downing acquired the Fallbrook property in 2005 and has had the exemption since then. The application for the tax exemption is a self-declaration that is signed under penalty of perjury, he said.

Olson said the only way the assessor’s office verifies the primary residence is by the address of where the bill is being sent.

“If someone were claiming Fallbrook (California) as their primary residence, but have us mailing the bill to Montana, that would raise a flag,” he said.

There is a way, though, that this is legal, Olson said. Since both Troy and his wife, Heather, own the Fallbrook property, it would be appropriate if Heather lived at the California property full-time for the exemption, while Troy stayed in Montana.

Downing’s Campaign Manager Kevin Gardner released a statement after being presented with the property tax bill and said it was California policy to automatically renew homeowner’s exemptions. He said if it was done, it was done without Troy’s knowledge.

“If there is an exemption on a home in California, that is a mistake and it will be corrected,” Gardner said in his statement. “Troy’s primary residence is in Big Sky, Montana and has been since 2009.”

Gardner went on to say that this was a clear attack from the liberal media and U.S. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s allies on a combat veteran who has a serious chance to unseat the senator. Imagine what the media could accomplish, he said, if they took as much time to look into issues like veteran unemployment, suicide rates of veterans in Montana and why they can’t get the care they need through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Instead, they choose to spend their time on a wild goose chase into trivial matters, attacking a man that served two tours in Afghanistan defending our freedoms,” Gardner said.

The homeowner’s tax exemption provides for a reduction of $7,000 off the assessed value of a home, Olson said. Property taxes are then based on that reduced assessed value, resulting in an annual tax savings of roughly $75 a year.

Olson said the exemption does automatically roll over from year to year, but it’s up to the taxpayer to notify the office if they move. He said it is possible that Downing may have overlooked the exemption on his bill, since it’s such a small dollar amount.

If Downing were found to be violating the regulations for the exemption, Olson said the assessor could go back eight years and remove the exemption. That would result in Downing paying the fee for each year he received the benefit.

Downing is currently facing seven misdemeanors for unlawful purchase of or apply for resident license by nonresident. He was cited an eighth time for transferring a hunting license to another person and a ninth time for assisting an unqualified applicant in obtaining a hunting license.

Downing’s citations accuse him of illegally buying licenses in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. The citation for transferring a license accuses him of loaning a 2011 Montana elk license to another for killing a bull elk.

And the citation for assisting an unqualified applicant accuses him of helping his nonresident son Dylan obtain Montana resident conservation, deer and elk licenses in 2015.

A person must live in Montana for 180 days prior to buying a resident hunting and fishing license. The person also must register a vehicle in Montana, file state income tax returns as a resident and not possess or apply for any residential hunting, fishing or trapping privileges in another state.

According to a search warrant application written by an FWP investigator, the investigation into Downing’s residency began in 2013, when the Montana Department of Revenue asked FWP to look into whether Downing met residency requirements for Montana hunting, fishing and trapping licenses. DOR said it believed Downing had illegally purchased resident licenses.

Downing had purchased resident conservation and season fishing licenses in 2014 and 2015. And in 2015, Downing purchased a resident conservation and season fishing license, a resident general elk license, a resident general deer license and a resident hunting access enhancement.

Income tax returns showed that Downing had filed income taxes as a non-resident in 2013 and 2014, but as a full-year resident in 2015.

A Google search of Downing turned up a personal blog titled, “Troy’s World-Random Rants and Related Run-On Rhetoric.” There were multiple posts that “suggested Troy Downing’s time in Montana is seasonal at best,” according to FWP Game Warden Brian Lloyd’s application for a search warrant.

In several posts from the personal blog and social media accounts, Downing refers to a Sleeping Indian Vineyard in Fallbrook, California, being “home” at the time he had received Montana licenses. Photos Downing posted also showed his son wearing hunter’s orange and camouflage near Big Sky.

Records showed that in 2015, Downing’s son Dylan, who only had a California driver’s license, had purchased a resident conservation license, resident general deer license, resident general elk license, resident state lands hunt/fish/trap license and a resident hunting access enhancement license.

The investigation showed that Dylan used Downing’s Montana driver’s license as proof of residency for all of those licenses.

Phone records showed that Downing’s cellphone number had a San Diego area code. And Downing’s property at the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky has an owner’s address listed as a P.O. box from Bonsall, California, that the Chronicle matched with Downing’s Fallbrook property.

When Downing was contacted on Feb. 15 by Warden Lloyd to advise him of the discrepancies the agency had found, Downing said that he owned his home in Montana “longer than any other residence,” and that he voted and paid taxes in the state, documents say.

“Downing also stated that if someone wanted to count days, he is probably in Montana more than any other place,” the application for the search warrant said.

Downing pleaded not guilty to the charges at an Aug. 23 appearance in Gallatin County Justice Court. A scheduling hearing had originally been slated for this week, but Downing’s attorney Christopher Williams asked for a continuance. That hearing is now set for Jan. 3 before Judge Bryan Adams. Downing waived his right to appear at that hearing.

In response to the Chronicle’s reporting on the details from FWP’s investigation, Gardner released a statement and said this was nothing more than an orchestrated attack on Downing. These moves, he said, are obviously politically motivated and makes a mockery of the judicial process.

“It’s unfortunate the liberal Montana FWP deep state is on a witch hunt,” he said.

On Thursday, Downing’s campaign sent another email with the subject line, “They’re spreading fake news.” The email asked for donations to the Downing campaign and said the liberal media will look for any opportunity to attack a conservative candidate like Downing.

“The recent witch hunt being driven by the liberal media and Jon Tester allies is only just the start of the attacks we’ll be up against in this election,” the email said.

Downing is seeking the Republican nomination to run against U.S. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018 along with State Auditor Matt Rosendale, state Sen. Albert Olszewski of Kalispell, former Billings’ Judge Russell Fagg, James William Dean of Havre and Belgrade businessman Ron Murray.

Downing’s campaign chair is Lola Zinke, wife of U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at 406-582-2630, or by email at fmonares@dailychronicle.com.