North Fund, a Washington-based group that has donated nearly $5 million to Montana marijuana legalization efforts, has been facing pressure to disclose their private donors since September 2020. In December, the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices ruled against the group, determining they must reveal their contributors. But after ample information and cooperation from North Fund, Montana government officials have recently reversed the decision.
The Complaints Filed Against Montana Pot Legalization Donors
The issues initially began over North Fund’s committee classification. The group first registered with the Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP) back in March of 2020 as an “incidental committee”. Under Montana state law, an incidental committee isn’t required to disclose its donors, and it may donate funds to political campaigns, but under no means should it be “specifically organized or operating for the primary purpose of supporting or opposing candidates or ballot issues.”
However, after North Fund bankrolled legalization efforts in the state, providing $4.7 million in cash contributions to pro-cannabis activist group New Approach Montana, COPP head Jeff Mangan began inspecting the situation. He found that North Fund’s political contributions in 2020 spanned across five states and totaled over $17 million. On September 11, 2020, Mangan reclassified the group as an independent committee and gave them until month’s end to disclose their donors.
“The way I look at it, if the COPP has a difficult time finding what a committee is about, then the chances are that Montana citizens are going to have the same issue,” said Mangan. “It’s my job to ensure there’s transparency for Montana. . . We have to have a good understanding of where the money is coming from.”
North Fund requested that the ruling be reconsidered, and while Mangan was deliberating, the COPP’s office received a formal complaint from Steve Zabawa, head of the anti-legalization group Wrong for Montana. In the complaint, Zabawa claimed that, “North Fund is nothing more than a slush fund funneling millions of dollars into Montana and other states attempting to buy ballot issue elections,” and he called for the group to “be subject to a fine of up to three times the amount of their unlawful contributions.”
In December, Commissioner Jeff Mangan issued his decision on the complaint, concluding that the North Fund should indeed be registered as an independent committee and that the group would be in violation of Montana campaigning laws if they didn’t proceed to share the source of their money. Representatives from North Fund argued otherwise, claiming they were properly classified as an incidental committee, and the “sum of its expenditures not related to ballot issues in 2020 totaled $30,222,7070,” and that support of Montana’s ballot measures totaled less than 10% of the year’s budget.
According to North Fund spokesperson Naomi Seligman, “North Fund’s work spans a number of states and covers critical issues, including justice reform, civic education and quality and affordable healthcare.”
Ruling Reversed in the Favor of Progressive Policies Group
On January 14, 2021, following North Fund’s response to COPP’s decision, Commissioner Mangan issued an order to the group—giving them 20 days to provide more information regarding their non-ballot issue expenditures. North Fund was instructed to provide, “the dates of each expenditure, the amount of each expenditure, the vendor/recipient of each expenditure, and the purpose of each expenditure,” in order to give the Commissioner enough information to issue a final ruling.
North Fund’s attorneys went on to submit a letter detailing their expenses, including an itemized list of their costs:
- Expenditures Related to Ballot Issues: $17,996,801
- Donations Made to Non-Ballot Issue Groups: $16,966,650
- Additional Non-Ballot Issue Spending: $10,347,009
- Administrative Costs: $2,877,170
The $16 million in donations to non-ballot issue groups was split amongst dozens of various organizations throughout the U.S. — most being civil rights and social justice advocacy groups. The additional $10 million spent was found to be allocated to promotion and outreach for other progressive causes like Black Lives Matter, gender equity, and Get Out the Vote.
With the additional information at hand, on March 3rd, Commissioner Mangan reversed his previous decision, allowing North Fund’s donors to remain private. Mangan commented on the reversal, saying, “the Commissioner and the COPP have spent significant amounts of time and resources resolving this issue, and we understand not everyone will agree with the final determination.”
“We’re kind of totally surprised that he’s done a complete reversal,” commented Wrong for Montana leader Steve Zabawa. “Anybody can come into Montana now and spend $5 million and not tell us who they are.”
While Zabawa continues his anti-cannabis efforts in court, legalization plans continue developing in the Treasure State. On March 17th, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte released his plan for cannabis legalization, calling for:
- 20% sales tax, in addition to local fees and taxes
- Opt-in system for local municipalities
- THC cap on flower at 35%
- Ban on at-home cultivation
For more updates on Montana’s progress toward marijuana legalization, continue checking back at The Weed Blog.
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