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Investigation into possible campaign finance violations from Ada homebuilder PAC remains open months later

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An investigation into campaign finance violations by a big-spending PAC associated with major Ada County homebuilders remains open five months after a complaint was filed.

In December of last year, Boise resident Tucker Anderson filed a formal complaint with the Idaho Secretary of State against the Conservative Citizens for Thoughtful Growth PAC and an associated organization called Building Industry Group of Treasure Valley. The complaint alleged BIG TV, an unincorporated nonprofit, covered most of Conservative Citizens for Thoughtful Growth’s expenses and ran Facebook ads for candidates without filing the proper reports or registering as a Political Action Committee. The two groups share the same address in Garden City, phone number and are both headed up by Tradewinds General Contracting Principal Steve Martinez. 

[Boise Fire Chief Officers’ PAC violated city policy by doing business at City Hall West]

Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck declined to answer a range of questions from BoiseDev about the complaint because it was still an open investigation in collaboration with the Idaho Attorney General’s Office. 

Martinez did not respond to an email from BoiseDev asking to comment on the investigation or about the two groups’ campaign practices during the 2021 municipal election cycle. He also did not respond to BoiseDev’s questions about his PAC’s campaign activity or late-filed campaign finance reports during the 2020 election cycle. 

CCFTG, which is powered by donations from large homebuilders, was a major spender in the past two election cycles. The PAC ran attack ads on social media against Commissioner Diana Lachiondo, a Democrat who lost to Republican Commissioner Ryan Davidson in 2020, and City Council Member Lisa Sanchez last year. BIG TV also ran ads supporting City Council Member Luci Willits and Greg MacMillan, one of Sanchez’s opponents in 2021. 

Spending questions go back to October 

Anderson had several points of contention with CCFTG and BIG TV he raised to the Secretary of State’s Office. 

He first filed a complaint with the state over CCFTG at the end of October over missing campaign finance reports detailing donations and expenditures, even though their advertising against Sanchez had already begun in earnest earlier that month. At the time of his complaint, the last time CCFTG had filed a campaign finance report was December 2020 and there was no new information about their spending on the new round of ads for the 2021 election or who their donors were. 

In October of last year without any reports filed, CCFTG sent mass texts to voters linking them to a professionally produced campaign video criticizing Sanchez and purchased a political ad on a State Street billboard. Idaho campaign finance reporting law requires PACs to file monthly reports about their cash on hand, donations, and expenditures. PACs are also required to file reports 48 hours after spending any funds on ads or other communications that mention any candidate in the election, regardless of if it is an attack ad or supporting a specific candidate. 

A screenshot from an ad against City Council Member Lisa Sanchez run by Conservative Citizens for Thoughtful Growth

This complaint was closed and CCFTG was not required to pay a fine. According to screenshots from the  Idaho Secretary of State’s campaign finance reporting website in December, the PAC filed retroactive reports of their spending and donations throughout the months of the election after the fact. 

When asked about the later filings and if they were done at the Idaho Secretary of State’s request, Houck said any candidate or committee can make amendments to any report at any time after they are due. He did not respond directly to questions about if CCFTG broke procedure by not filing reports by the deadline or if the reports were filed as a result of the complaint. 

“The law requires that the reports be filed in a timely manner (by a deadline), and the candidates and committees attest to their accuracy in the process of submitting them,” Houck wrote in an email to BoiseDev. “In that regard, making an amendment at a later date is not in and of itself a sign of having broken a law, nor does it preclude the same.”

What about the complaint still left open?

Anderson’s second complaint about CCFTG and BIG TV, which dates to December 15, remains under investigation and it’s unclear when the matter will close.  

CCTFG’s campaign finance filings revealed the organization had started paying for its advertising campaigns in the election with contributions only from BIG TV instead of individual donors, like the Building Contractors Association of Southwestern Idaho PAC, Shadow Mountain Homes and Hammett Homes in 2020. Because BIG TV is classified by the Secretary of State as an unincorporated nonprofit and describes itself as an “educational research center” on its Facebook page, donors to the group are not disclosed. 

Campaign finance reports for CCFTG show BIG TV’s donations to the PAC exactly mirror expenses paid to Star-based advertising company 123Decal LLC. For example, the October monthly report for CCFTG shows the company racked up $13,298 in debt to 123DecalLLC for their services. BIG TV donated this exact amount on November 2, the same day the Idaho Secretary of State’s system shows CCFTG filed its October report. The pattern repeated a week later when CCFTG accrued $11,024 in debt toward 123Decal LLC by November 9, and BIG TV donated the exact amount the day the debt is marked as paid off on the state’s reporting system. 

Anderson took issue with this practice in his complaint to the Secretary of State’s office, alleging “they may have hidden the donors who financed the ad campaigns for and against candidates.” He also reported six Facebook ads run by BIG TV for Willits, MacMillan and Kuna City Council Candidate Tyson Garten. At the time of Anderson’s complaint, BIG TV had not filed any electioneering reports (which are required anytime an organization or person sends out communications about a candidate) or any information about its donors or expenditures. 

A screenshot of Facebook ads run by BIG TV in the 2021 municipal election. Via Facebook Ad Library

Idaho Secretary of State staff forwarded Anderson’s complaint to Jeremy Chou, a lawyer with Givens Pursley, who represented BIG TV on December 20, according to emails obtained by BoiseDev through a public records request. Chou responded in a letter on December 29, with attached disclosure forms sharing $22,018 in spending in support of Willits and MacMillan. He said the ad for Garten under BIG TV’s name was a mistake and was “immediately rectified” upon its discovery. 

“We have reviewed the allegations made by Mr. Anderson and deny any intentional violation of Idaho’s Sunshine law,” the letter said. “The Building Industry Group of Treasure Valley is a business league dedicated to providing education, networking and industry support for the residential construction market. Its primary business is not political. As a consequence, it was not aware of Idaho’s disclosure requirements.”

After the election, BIG TV formed its own PAC: Building Industry Group of Treasure Valley PAC, which Martinez also runs. The PAC filed two independent expenditure reports reimbursing 123Decal LLC for advertising campaign services on November 18 and, so far, its only donation has been $10,000 from the nonprofit arm of BIG TV. 

A pattern of no enforcement

In the last two years, none of the campaign finance complaints reported to the Idaho Secretary of State have resulted in fines. 

BoiseDev requested the reports and outcomes of every campaign finance complaint filed with the state agency for 2020, 2021 and so far for 2022 in the course of reporting this story. Of the 13 complaints, none resulted in a fine and the only report left open is Anderson’s from December. 

Five of the complaints came from Bingham County resident Travis Oler, who is currently running against Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, as a Democrat. He reported the Blaine County Republican Women’s group for donating $2,000 to two candidates without filing financial disclosure reports, as well as the Idaho Freedom Foundation for putting out a video with two legislators he felt should have required an electioneering report. 

The details of his Idaho Freedom Foundation report were not included in BoiseDev’s public records request, but Secretary of State staff emailed him in July of 2021, informing him that Deputy Secretary of State Jason Hancock found an electioneering report wasn’t necessary. The Blaine County Republican Women’s complaint from June 2021 also resulted in no fine. 

Oler also reported the Idaho Freedom Foundation in 2020. He cited a payment of $11,341 from its 501(c)(4) companion organization Idaho Freedom Action to IFF for “cross charges for labor, overhead, and printing.” Oler wrote in his complaint that if the Idaho Freedom Foundation incurred these costs, the nonprofit should have filed an electioneering report, not Idaho Freedom Action. Nonprofits, like the Idaho Freedom Foundation, are not allowed to participate in political lobbying and campaigning under federal tax law. Oler’s complaint resulted in no fine. 

Another complaint from Oler came in August 2020 when he reported Young for paying herself $650 for broadcast advertising services instead of whatever company or individual produced the ad. A few months later in October, he reported the Bonneville County Republican Party for a September monthly report two weeks overdue and a mistake in a report misidentifying a donor. Both complaints resulted in no fine. 

Rep. Scott Syme, R-Wilder, filed a complaint against his opponent in the 2020 primary Mila Wood for incorrect campaign finance filings. He reported an incomplete report for March that wasn’t corrected until mid-May, a late report for April, a reference to a starting balance of $2,000 with no information as to the source, and three anonymous donations logged on the April report. 

In an email to Syme, a Secretary of State staffer walked through all four pieces of the complaint and how they had been resolved. The email noted that the incomplete report for March was not a violation because a report had always been on file, even if it had to have been amended twice. The email also said Wood’s April report was filed within 48 hours of the deadline, which is a grace period so there was no fine.

The beginning balance with no source was a loan from Wood to her campaign, which her treasurer did not know how to change after mistakenly inputting it without a source. The matter was resolved when the Secretary of State staffer walked her through the process of amending reports. The Secretary of State staffer also informed Wood’s treasurer that all donations must include names and addresses and the anonymous donor information was inputted into the system. 

A 2022 campaign finance complaint against independent gubernatorial candidate Ammon Bundy also resulted in no fine.

Two complaints were referred to county clerks to investigate, one in Valley County and the other in Kootenai County.

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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