The Idaho Attorney General’s Office is investigating a publication called The People’s Pen after a northern Idaho resident filed a campaign finance lawsuit alleging it is not a newspaper but of an election article produced and paid for by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.
Assistant Secretary of State Chad Houck said the secretary’s office is working alongside Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s staff to determine whether the publication violates Idaho’s sun laws ahead of the May primary election.
According to the complaint, at least 70,000 Idahoans received a copy of the People’s Pen about a week before the May primary election, the publication’s fifth issue. The pamphlet consisted of 24 pages of content, including several full-page advertisements about candidate nominations and negative advertisements about unapproved candidates that include a disclaimer “Paid for by the County Republican Central Committee of Kootenai”.
Past issues dating back to October included in-depth interviews with central committee-endorsed candidates, committee members discussing the process of selecting candidates for its endorsements, and endorsements for school board and city board elections.
Under Idaho law, newspapers are exempt from what are considered campaign communications or independent expenses during elections, which means a news outlet can publish editorials and endorsements or other commentary. on the candidates and that communications need not be reported to the office of the Secretary of State. Election communications are advertisements or other messages intended to support or oppose candidates that must be reported to the office of the Idaho Secretary of State within 30 days of a primary election.
A newspaper, however, is not exempt under Idaho law if it is owned or controlled by a political party or candidate.
Houck said the two offices are working to determine who controls the publication and whether it is exempt as a newspaper or part of a campaign effort.
“If it’s a news publication but wholly owned or controlled by the party, then there should have been a disclosure if that was indeed the case,” Houck said. “We don’t know at this point.”
Other information about the Pen, including the name of its publisher or publisher, is not printed on the product or its associated website. On the front page of the May issue, the contact information is listed as a post office box in Coeur d’Alene.
The company is registered as a foreign entity in Idaho and incorporated in Wyoming in April 2021 with Cloud Peak Law as its registered agent and address. Wyoming law does not require disclosure of ownership of a limited liability company.
A resident who filed a complaint is linked to Republicans in northern Idaho
Sandy Patano, who has lived in northern Idaho for most of his life and worked as a staffer for former U.S. Senator Larry Craig for 18 years, filed two lawsuits against the Pen in April and May . Its complaint alleges that the publication violates Idaho sun laws by posing as an independent local newspaper when it claims it is in fact produced by the central committee.
“We think they own it or control it, but they tried to get around the law by not being upfront, by not declaring who it really is,” Patano said.
Central Committee Chairman Brent Regan told the Idaho Capital Sun via email that the committee bought People’s Pen ads in three of the five issues that have been in print since October, but the involvement ends there. .
Regan said the complaint was politically motivated because Patano and her husband, former Idaho Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs, started a group called North Idaho Republicans in March to counter what they say is a extremist takeover by libertarian groups calling themselves Republicans in Kootenai. County and Bonner County, where Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint are located. The group spoke out against the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee and its tactics, saying they do not represent true Republicans.
Regan is also chairman of the board of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative and libertarian group that has also come under fire from more mainstream Republicans for its tactics.
“We think they stole the name ‘Republican,'” Riggs said. “They come in and work the system, which means they elect people in precincts, and so they kind of own the Republican name, and our group says, ‘You’re not even Republican. ”
Riggs is also the father of R-Post Falls Sen. Peter Riggs, who lost his first race to Carl Bjerke in May. Bjerke was endorsed by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.
“I suspect the complaint against the KCRCC is for retaliation, because any rational person can clearly see that we are not breaking any laws,” Regan said.
Regan filed her own complaint with the Secretary of State’s office against the Northern Idaho Republicans in early May because the organization had failed to register as a political action committee before buying an ad in the Coeur d’Alene Press voter guide. The group was fined $2,500.
Kootenai Central Committee Ad Spending Makes No Sense, Complaint Says
The Kootenai County Republican Central Committee reported three expenses to TPC Holdings for ads, according to Regan. TPC Holdings is a Lewiston company that prints the Lewiston Tribune and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, as well as about 100 other trade publications, according to editor and publisher Nathan Alford.
Alford confirmed that TPC Holdings printed the product, but said he was not aware of any issues with the central committee. He said the company generally does not discuss the details of customers who use their printing press.
The central committee reported expenses to the Idaho secretary of state of $13,579 in October, $22,136 in April and $41,631 in May. Patano said the May spend in particular is well above the market rate for ads in any publication and doesn’t add up.
A Coeur d’Alene Press advertising representative told the Idaho Capital Sun on Tuesday that a single full-page ad would cost about $1,200. In the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, a full-page ad costs about $400.
“The exorbitant payment makes no sense,” reads the complaint.
Regan told the Capital Sun via email that the central committee decided the ad rates were profitable.
“Given our success rate, it was money well spent and fully paid off,” Regan said.
Patano’s complaint also states that Republican Central Committees in Benewah, Shoshone and Bonner counties did not report spending with The People’s Pen or TPC Holdings.
A search of the Idaho Secretary of State’s Campaign Finance Reporting System on Wednesday did not show spending with The People’s Pen or TPC from those central committees.
Patano provided an email exchange that she says further proves that the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee is running the publication. A marketer in Coeur d’Alene emailed the People’s Pen to inquire about advertising rates in November and received a response from Dan Bell, who is the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee Youth Chairman. .
Bell proposed rates ranging from $800 for a quarter-page ad to $2,000 for a full page.
Regan’s explanation for Bell’s response was that the Kootenai County committee “encouraged other northern Idaho central committees to advertise in the People’s Pen and Dan had the rate sheet.”
Deputy Secretary: Legal ramifications of a violation are unclear under Idaho law
Patano’s complaint also included a copy of a 2018 opinion issued by Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane about The Idahoan, a publication written by Patrick Malloy that contained articles, endorsements and other election-related topics. .
Kane wrote that to be considered a newspaper, magazine, or other periodical, the publication must not be owned or controlled by any political candidate or party. While some of The Idahoan’s writers were affiliated with political committees across the state, Idaho’s election laws relate only to the control of publication by a candidate or party. Because the committees were independently run, Kane determined that Idahoan was exempt.
That may not apply to The People’s Pen if the investigation determines that the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee owns and operates the publication, Houck said.
It’s unclear what the legal ramifications would be under Idaho law if a violation had occurred, but similar prior violations have usually resulted in a fine. Houck said it could be up to the attorney general’s office to recommend.
“Even though it turned out that the KCRCC had control of it, all expenses had already been reported as far as donors were concerned,” Houck said. “So it’s not like we’re going to see any additional donors leaked, per se, it’s more a question of, did they just fail to take credit or present it as an editorialized story? “