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People’s Pen publication under investigation by Idaho AG for alleged sunshine law violation

The Idaho Attorney General’s office is investigating a publication called The People’s Pen after a North Idaho resident filed a campaign finance complaint alleging it is not a newspaper but an electioneering piece produced and paid for by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.  ((Screenshot))
By Kelcie Moseley-Morris Idaho Capital Sun

The Idaho Attorney General’s office is investigating a publication called The People’s Pen after a North Idaho resident filed a campaign finance complaint alleging it is not a newspaper but an electioneering piece produced and paid for by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.

Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said the secretary’s office is working alongside Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s staff to determine whether the publication violated Idaho sunshine laws leading up to 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 primary election in May, the fifth issue of the publication. The pamphlet was composed of 24 pages of content, including several full-page ads of candidate endorsements and negative ads about nonendorsed candidates that include a “Paid for by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee” disclaimer.

Past issues dating back to October included in-depth interviews with candidates endorsed by the central committee, committee members discussing the candidate vetting process for its endorsements, and endorsements for school board and city elections.

Under Idaho law, newspapers are exempt from what is considered electioneering communications or independent expenditures during elections, meaning a news outlet can publish editorials and endorsements or other commentary about candidates and the communications do not need to be reported to the secretary of state’s office. Electioneering communications are ads or other messages meant to support or oppose candidates that must be declared with the Idaho Secretary of State’s office within 30 days of a primary election.

A newspaper, however, is not exempt, according to Idaho law, if it is owned or controlled by a political party or candidate.

Houck said the two offices are working to determine who is in control of the publication and whether it is exempt as a newspaper or if it is part of a campaign effort.

“If it’s a press publication but wholly owned or controlled by the party, then there should have been some disclosure if that was in fact the case,” Houck said. “We don’t know that at this point.”

Other information about the Pen, including the name of its editor or publisher, is not printed on the product or its associated website. On the first page of the May issue, contact information is listed as a P.O. Box in Coeur d’Alene.

The company is registered as a foreign entity in Idaho and formed in Wyoming in April 2021 with Cloud Peak Law as the registered agent and address. Wyoming law does not require disclosure of a limited liability company’s ownership.

Resident who filed complaint is connected to North Idaho Republicans

Sandy Patano, who has lived in North Idaho for most of her life and worked as a staffer to former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig for 18 years, filed two complaints about the Pen in April and May. Her complaint alleges the publication violates Idaho’s sunshine laws by masquerading as an independent local newspaper when she says it is actually produced by the central committee.

“We believe they own it or control it, but they’ve tried to skirt the law by not being forthright, by not filing who it really is,” Patano said.

The central committee’s chairman, Brent Regan, told the Idaho Capital Sun by email that the committee bought ads in the People’s Pen in three of the five issues that have been printed since October, but the involvement ends there.

Regan said the complaint is motivated by politics, 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 an extremist takeover by libertarian groups calling themselves Republicans in Kootenai County and Bonner County, where Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint are located. The group has spoken out against the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee and its tactics, saying they don’t represent real Republicans.

Regan is also the chairman of the board of directors for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative and libertarian group that has been criticized by more traditional Republicans for its tactics as well.

“We think they’ve stolen the name of ‘Republican,’ ” Riggs said. “They come in and work the system, meaning they elect people to the precincts, and therefore they kind of own the Republican name, and our group is saying, ‘You guys aren’t even Republican.’ ”

Riggs is also the father of Sen. Peter Riggs, R-Post Falls, who lost his primary race to Carl Bjerke in May. Bjerke was endorsed by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.

“I suspect the complaint against the KCRCC is about retaliation, as any rational person can clearly see we are not in violation of any law,” Regan said.

Regan filed his own complaint with the Secretary of State’s office against North Idaho Republicans in early May because the organization had not registered as a political action committee before purchasing an ad in the Coeur d’Alene Press’ voter guide. The group was fined $2,500.

Kootenai central committee’s spending on ads doesn’t make sense, complaint alleges

The Kootenai County Republican Central Committee reported three expenditures to TPC Holdings that were for the ads, according to Regan. TPC Holdings is a company in Lewiston that prints the Lewiston Tribune and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, along with about 100 other business 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 doesn’t discuss details about clients who use their printing press.

The central committee reported expenditures to the Idaho Secretary of State of $13,579 in October, $22,136 in April, and $41,631 in May. Patano said the May expenditure in particular is far above market rate for ads in any publication and doesn’t add up.

An ad representative for the Coeur d’Alene Press told the Idaho Capital Sun on Tuesday that a full-page, single ad would be about $1,200. In the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, a full-page ad is about $400.

“The exorbitant payment makes no sense,” the complaint reads.

Regan told the Capital Sun by email that the central committee decided the ad rates were cost effective.

“Given our success rate, it was money well spent, and fully reported,” Regan said.

Patano’s complaint also says the county Republican central committees in Benewah, Shoshone and Bonner counties have not reported expenditures with The People’s Pen or TPC Holdings.

As of Wednesday, a search of the Idaho Secretary of State’s campaign finance reporting system did not show expenditures with The People’s Pen or TPC from those central committees.

Patano provided an email exchange that she said further proves the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee is running the publication. A marketing agent in Coeur d’Alene emailed the People’s Pen to inquire about ad rates in November and received a response from Dan Bell, who is the youth chairman of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.

Bell quoted rates ranging from $800 for a quarter-page ad to $2,000 for a full page.

Regan’s explanation for Bell’s reply was that the Kootenai County committee was “encouraging other central committees in North Idaho to advertise in the People’s Pen and Dan had the rate sheet.”

Deputy secretary: Legal ramifications for 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 qualify as a newspaper, magazine or other periodical, the publication must not be owned or controlled by a candidate or political party. While some of the authors in The Idahoan were affiliated with political committees across the state, Idaho’s electioneering laws pertain only to whether the publication is controlled by a candidate or a party. Since the committees were independently operated, Kane determined The Idahoan was exempt.

That may not apply to The People’s Pen if the investigation determines 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 has occurred, but similar past violations have typically resulted in a fine. Houck said that could be up to the attorney general’s office to recommend.

“Even if the KCRCC were to be found to have been in control of it, all the expenses had already been reported as far as the donors go,” Houck said. “So it’s not like we’re going to see additional donors disclosed, per se, it’s more of a question of, did they just simply fail to take credit for or pose it as an editorialized piece?”