If you visit llewjonesformontana.com on the Internet you won’t find a whole lot there yet.
The landing page features a pastoral scene of a freshly cut hayfield, complete with round bales, grain bins in the background and clouds billowing over distant mountain tops.
“Thank you for visiting Lew Jones for Montana” the banner on the page proclaims.
“Please check in soon for more updates.”
What updates might one expect to find on what is presumably a campaign website for Conrad Republican Sen. llew Jones?
Jones doesn’t know, but he’s pretty sure it won’t be good.
“I can only postulate, but it would seem that with the timing, mid-session, and the anonymous nature, that is is most likely of ill-intent,” Jones said. “If I were to hazard a guess, I believe it is the beginning of dark money's intent to message against me. After all, the owner, at this point is hidden.”
According to a domain registration search, llewjonesformontana.com was registered on March 28 using at GoDaddy.com. The owner of the domain has opted to keep their identity secret.
March 28 is the a day after the Senate passed Senate Bill 375, the bi-partisan anti-dark money campaign finance reform bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, and back by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
A handful of Republicans joined nearly all Senate Democrats in voting to bring SB375 out of committee, where it had stalled, and onto the floor for a debate. During the floor debate Jones was one of the most outspoken critics of dark money spending in political campaigns.
Jones described dark money this way on the Senate floor:
“The most despicable person in westerns is the bushwhacker, the person who sits in the bushes and shoots someone in the back. And that is dark money,” said state Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. “Dark money is the most destructive thing happening to politics today.”
Jones, who was alerted to the existence of the website by an anonymous emails, said he suspects the website is a message designed to “intimidate” him into “stand down” on his crusade against dark money.
“I am not a popular guy with those that prefer to operate from the dark,” Jones said. “It seems that those who operate independently, and who make their votes based upon their conscience and then their constituents are not obedient enough. Darkness seems particularly opposed to any bipartisan activity.”
Jones said if the website was aimed at intimidating him, it will actually have the opposite effect.
“I plan to work even harder to shine light on dark money,” Jones said.
Jones said he plans to blast House Bill 254, by Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, onto the Senate floor. That blast motion could come today.
Cook’s bill would require election materials, including anonymous websites and mailings, to contain the following disclaimer if the material was paid for by anonymous political action committee dollars:
“This communication is funded by anonymous sources. The voter should determine the veracity of its content.”
Cook’s bill was tabled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Jones said bills like SB375 and HB254 “help turn the lights” on anonymous campaign activity.
“The voter needs to be informed when the sources of materials are dark,” Jones said. “I strongly support the right of free speech, but those that wish to speak freely should step into the light and identify themselves when doing so.”
A search of the IP address used to register llewjonesformontana.com found the same IP address was used to register at least 50 other domain names, including montanagrwothfoundation.org.
According to Federal Election Commission records, Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, is the treasurer for the Montana Growth Foundation. Priest runs a political issue advocacy group called Montana Growth Network, which this session has sent out mailers critical of Medicaid expansion.
Priest was a vocal opponent of SB375 and voted against it in the Senate.
Priest said he does not own the domain for montanagrowthfoundation.org and has done no work on the website.
Priest said he had no knowledge of llewjonesformontana.com. Priest said he first learned of llewjonesformontana.com when questioned by the Lowdown.
“The first thing I did was see how I registered the (Montana Growth) Foundation,” Priest said. “When I looked at my accounts I saw that I didn’t register the domain for the foundation.”
Priest said that doesn’t mean someone associated with the Montana Growth Network or the Montana Growth Foundation didn’t register the domain and start the website.
Priest said he was looking into the matter.