Montana's attorney general said he recruited token primary opponent to increase campaign fundraising

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's attorney general told supporters he skirted the state’s campaign finance laws by inviting another Republican to run against him as a token candidate in next month's primary so he could raise more money for the November general election, according to a recording from a fundraising event.

“I do technically have a primary," Attorney General Austin Knudsen said last week when asked at the event who was running against him. “However, he is a young man who I asked to run against me because our campaign laws are ridiculous."

Knudsen separately faces dozens of professional misconduct allegations from the state's office of attorney discipline as he seeks a second term. He made the comments about his primary opponent during the fundraiser on May 11 in Dillon, Montana, according to the recording obtained by the Daily Montanan, which is part of the nonprofit States Newsroom organization.

In the recording, Knudsen is heard saying that Logan Olson “filed to run against me simply because under our current campaign finance laws in Montana, it allows me to raise more money. So, he supports me and he’s going to vote for me.”

Knudsen’s senior campaign adviser Jake Eaton declined to comment on the recording.

Olson, a county attorney in rural northeastern Montana, denied being recruited by Knudsen. Campaign finance records indicate his filing fee was paid by a longtime Republican operative who is also a Knudsen donor.

The state’s campaign finance watchdog agency, the Commissioner of Political Practices, is investigating complaints filed by the executive director of the Montana Democratic Party that allege an agreement between Knudsen and Olson.

Under state law, a person cannot pay or “promise valuable consideration” to another person to induce them to be a candidate, or to withdraw as a candidate.

Democrat Sheila Hogan's complaints say Knudsen started raising donations exceeding the $790-per person allowed without a primary opponent long before Olson filed on March 11 — the final day for candidate filing.

“Olson is not a legitimate, good faith candidate for Attorney General,” both complaints state.

Eaton, who called the complaint against Knudsen frivolous, said it was “common practice for candidates to accept primary and general contributions and then return the money if there is no contested primary."

He said Democratic attorney aeneral candidate Ben Alke, a Bozeman attorney, was also accepting contributions for the general election.

Alke has received a $100 general election donation from a supporter who also donated $150 to his primary, campaign finance reports show. Knudsen’s campaign has reported more than $91,000 in general election contributions.

Knudsen and Olson have until May 23 to respond to the complaints, although Olson has requested an extension, commissioner Chris Gallus said Friday.

Olson has not raised or spent any money in the race, according to a report filed by his treasurer on Friday.

His April campaign finance report listed a debt of more than $1,500 to Standard Consulting of Helena for reimbursement of his filing fee.

“I did pay Logan’s filing fee and helped him file for office,” Chuck Denowh, a Republican operative and owner of Standard Consulting, said in an email Friday. “I did so because he asked me to.”

Denowh has donated $1,580 to Knudsen -- $790 each for the primary and general elections.

Alke said the professional misconduct allegations and other actions by Knudsen are why he's running for attorney general.

Knudsen is facing 41 counts of professional misconduct on allegations his office tried to undermine the Montana Supreme Court while defending a challenge to a state law about judicial nominations. The Commission on Practice is scheduled to hear the case in mid-July and recommend whether Knudsen should be punished.

Separately, in early 2021 Knudsen ordered the Lewis and Clark County attorney to dismiss concealed carry weapons charges against a man who allegedly threatened a restaurant manager trying to enforce the state's pandemic mask mandate. Knudsen's office later pleaded the case down to disorderly conduct.

In October 2021, a Helena hospital said three unspecified public officials threatened doctors after they refused to treat a COVID-19 patient with ivermectin, a drug for parasites that is not federally approved for the virus. Knudsen’s office later confirmed that he participated in a conference call with hospital executives and that he sent a Montana Highway Patrol trooper to the hospital to talk with the patient’s family after they claimed mistreatment — something the hospital denied.

“This sort of conduct from the chief legal officer and law enforcement officer of the state of Montana is inappropriate and I hope people are paying attention because this is just one of several issues with Austin Knudsen,” Alke said Thursday.


This story has been updated to correct that Democratic attorney general candidate Ben Alke has received a $100 contribution to his general election campaign.