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No action on election-related publication, Idaho Secretary of State decides

By Kelcie Moseley-Morris Idaho Capital Sun

No charges or fines will be levied against the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee over its participation with a publication called the People’s Pen after an investigation by the offices of the secretary of state and the attorney general.

Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said while there was one invoice entirely paid by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, the office determined the rest of the evidence discovered through the course of an investigation was not strong enough to prove the committee controls and pays for the publication, which would be a violation of Idaho campaign finance law.

Secretary of State Lawerence Denney sent a letter Sept. 13 to Sandra Patano saying the office was closing the investigation. Patano, who is a co-founder of North Idaho Republicans, filed the complaint on May 13 alleging the publication is an electioneering piece that should be reported as such.

What does Idaho law say about electioneering communications?

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.

However, Idaho law says a newspaper is not exempt if it is owned or controlled by a political party or candidate.

Houck said because the central committee disclosed all of its expenditures, the office made the decision not to proceed with a court case as a matter of practicality.

Complaint is part of GOP organizations’ back-and-forth

Sandy Patano, the person who filed the complaint, founded North Idaho Republicans with her husband, Jack Riggs. Patano 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. Riggs is a former lieutenant governor of Idaho, and he and Patano started the group in March to counter what they call an extremist takeover by libertarian groups calling themselves Republicans in the Coeur d’Alene area. The group has spoken out against the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee and its tactics, saying they don’t represent real Republicans.

Kootenai County Republican Central Committee Chairman Brent Regan filed his own complaint with the secretary of state 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, the maximum penalty under state law. Regan called Patano’s complaint retaliatory and politically motivated.

“The attorney general’s office had to look at what kind of case you can build from the information that you have and the information you can gather,” Houck said. “We had to look at that and say, ‘Is there a case there that we think is ultimately winnable?’ Because when you take something like that and go into a court environment with it, the offset is … if you aren’t successful in challenging your case, the prevailing party can charge the non-prevailing party attorney’s fees.”

At best, Houck said, a successful case would have merely resulted in requiring future publications to explicitly say on the front cover it was paid for by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee. At worst, it might have cost thousands of taxpayer dollars in attorney’s fees, he said.

“The case strategy that (the AG’s office) ultimately presented to us was not a case that we were comfortable advising them or requesting that they pursue,” Houck said.

Invoice amounts match independent expenditures from Idaho central committee

Five issues of the People’s Pen have been published since October 2021, and the editions include in-depth interviews with candidates endorsed by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, a description of the committee’s candidate vetting process for endorsements, and endorsements for school board and city elections.

Houck said the committee leadership’s explanation for paying nearly the entire October 2021 invoice was the publisher asked them to do so, “because that was the only way to get it done and on the street on time. … So it was just an anomaly in terms of the procedure the publisher was doing.”

The Sun obtained public records related to the investigation that included the five invoices from TPC Holdings, a company in Lewiston that prints the Lewiston Tribune and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, along with other business publications and advertisements.

The October 2021 invoice shows payments from the central committee and several others who placed ads in the People’s Pen, including Idaho Senate candidate Ben Toews. TPC Holdings printed 75,000 copies of the 16-page edition, and provided postage, for a total of about $19,000. The central committee paid more than $13,000 of the bill.

The invoices are directed to Joel Bevacqua at a Coeur d’Alene P.O. Box.

Bevacqua appears to be a musician in Coeur d’Alene who goes by DJ Deadly Buda, and records show Bevacqua donated $200 to the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee in December. Bevacqua could not be reached for comment.

In an email, the Sun asked Kootenai County Republican Central Committee Chairman Brent Regan several questions related to the People’s Pen, including who Bevacqua is and why he was receiving the invoices.

“I cannot answer several of your questions as I have no proprietary knowledge of the workings or plans of the People’s Pen publication,” Regan said.

Invoices from February and early April are for smaller print jobs, 10,000 copies and 5,000 copies, respectively, and show payment from the Glacier Family and Bevacqua himself.

The invoice in April reflects 74,000 copies of a 20-page edition plus postage, for a total of $22,136. It does not state who paid the invoice, but the central committee reported that exact amount as an independent expenditure in April.

The amount doubled for the May edition, with 125,844 copies of the 24-page issue plus postage, for a total of $41,631. It again does not reflect who paid the invoice, but the central committee reported the exact expenditure total in May.

The Sun requested further public records related to the investigation, but Houck said many of the documents are protected by attorney-client privilege with the Idaho Attorney General’s office.

Registered agent for Idaho entity is a former legislative candidate

Although the People’s Pen is now registered as a foreign business entity in Idaho with its main operations in Wyoming, it was not registered in Idaho until May – nearly seven months after the first edition was distributed to Idaho households. Under Idaho law, there is no penalty for doing business without registering as a foreign entity.

“As a result of the investigation, the Attorney General’s Office sent a letter to the People’s Pen’s registered agent in Wyoming, demanding that the People’s Pen register in Idaho. The People’s Pen has done so,” Denney wrote in the September letter.

A copy of the letter from Deputy Attorney General Robert Berry obtained by the Sun showed it was sent on May 23, and the Pen registered as a foreign entity in Idaho on May 31.

The registered agent, according to the Idaho Secretary of State foreign entity record, is Hari Heath. Heath has written several articles for the People’s Pen and ran unsuccessfully for a legislative seat in the Coeur d’Alene area in 2018 and 2020.

It’s unclear if there will be another edition of the People’s Pen before the Nov. 8 general election. The Kootenai County Republican Central Committee has not reported any expenditures to TPC Holdings since the May edition.

Patano said she is unhappy with the outcome, and she plans to keep up her efforts to prove the committee’s involvement with the publication.

“(The committee is) very focused on election integrity, but I think this is part of election integrity,” Patano said. “As a Republican, I want to make sure other Republicans are accountable, if that’s what they’re calling themselves.”

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