By Terri Jo Neff
Questions have been raised about a private law firm’s handling of a campaign finance violation investigation involving the Town of Gilbert’s recent mayoral race, while others are asking why the law firm was involved in the first place.
Last week an attorney with Fitzgibbons Law Offices reported to Gilbert Town Attorney Chris Payne that legal sufficiency does not exist to establish a violation of state election law with respect to dozens of campaign-related signs, despite a finding by the Phoenix City Clerk earlier this year of “reasonable cause” to believe a campaign finance violation occurred.
The law firm’s decision appears to have been made without reviewing bank records of the parties involved nor speaking to additional witnesses, a fact not sitting well with many in Gilbert and Maricopa County who support election integrity.
On Nov. 11, 2020, the Town of Gilbert received a complaint related to dozens of signs put up around town that were critical of Matt Nielsen, who lost to former city councilwoman Brigette Peterson in a mayoral runoff race.
Based on citizens’ statements and a private investigator’s report, none of the signs included “paid for by” or “authorized by” verbiage. Nielsen filed a campaign violation complaint alleging the Public Integrity Alliance Committee, headed by Tyler Montague, was involved with the anti-Nielsen signs. Public records show the committee was actively involved in supporting Peterson’s campaign.
The City of Phoenix handled the initial phase of the violation review to avoid the conflict of interest of having Gilbert town staff involved. In February, the Phoenix City Clerk announced there was “reasonable cause” to believe a campaign finance violation was committed in connection to the signs that Montague admitted paying for in cash and picking up at a print shop.
The second phase of the campaign finance complaint would normally have involved Town Attorney Chris Payne reviewing the reasonable cause report from the City of Phoenix in order to determine which state law had been violated.
However, town officials once again declared a conflict because Payne and his staff work at the pleasure of the town’s mayor and council. Instead of asking the Phoenix City Attorney or the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to handle the second part of the investigation, town officials hired a private law firm to do the work; a law firm which needs to rely on Peterson’s approval for future business with the town.
During its investigation, attorneys for Fitzgibbons had access to a statement Montague provided the City of Phoenix in which he described seeing several of signs laying on the ground while driving by a polling place at the Gilbert Recreation Center on Nov. 3, Election Day.
According to Montague’s statement, he replaced four or five of the signs even though he did not originally place those signs. He also said he saw a woman remove the same signs he had just replaced and told her it was illegal to take down political signs without authorization.
The woman previously told a private investigator that the man told her she was committing a misdemeanor and she should not touch” his” signs. The man was identified as Montague through his license plate. He told the Phoenix clerk that his activities were not an operation of the Public Integrity Alliance Committee.
Once retained, a Fitzgibbons attorney issued a subpoena in March to the print shop where the anti-Nielsen signs were printed. In response, an invoice in Montague’s name was provided by the printer, who said Montague ordered and paid for the signs with $500 cash.
A subpoena was also issued to Montague seeking “all information related to the purchase of any signs pertaining to the 2020 election for the Mayor of the Town of Gilbert that reference Matt Nielsen. Such information shall include, but not be limited to, the name and contact information for any vendor that made such signs, purchase orders, receipts, wording included on the signs and any images of the signs.”
Montague replied again that the anti-Nielsen signs were not funded by himself or the Committee. He explained that the printer’s invoice ended up in Montague’s name only because he “volunteered to pick up those up for a friend who funded them. Public Integrity Alliance was not involved in any way.”
It should be noted that the invoice numbers for both Public Integrity Alliance’s sign purchases, as well as the order numbers for both purchases are sequential, indicating that the signs had been ordered at the same time and paid for at the same time.
In a July 6 report to Payne, Fitzgibbons attorney Tina Vannucci noted that ARS 16-925(A) states a “person that makes an expenditure for an advertisement or fund-raising solicitation, other than an individual, shall include [certain] disclosures in the advertisement or solicitation…”
Vannucci noted “there is not legal sufficiency” to establish that Montague acted in his capacity as President of the Committee, or on behalf of the Committee, or that the Committee purchased the signs at issue in the Complaint which were not properly labeled.” And because the statute specifically exempts individuals from the “paid for by” or “authorized by” language, if Montague was responsible for the signs at his own volition then he cannot be charged with the violation.
What is not mentioned in the Fitzgibbons report is whether Montague was asked who the “friend” was in the event that person was acting on behalf of a committee or other organization. In addition, there was no subpoena issued for bank records belonging to Montague and the Public Integrity Alliance Committee which may have revealed whether Montague received or requested reimbursement or petty cash for the anti-Nielsen signs.
The next meeting of the Gilbert town council has not been confirmed. It is unclear whether any formal action on the campaign complaint is necessary by the council, although the town will have to approve a bill at some point from Fitzgibbons for legal services.