State declines to proceed with People’s Pen prosecution

COEUR d’ALENE — After investigating allegations that a publication called the People’s Pen violated Idaho campaign finance laws, the Secretary of State’s Office has declined to proceed with prosecution at this time.

The investigation was launched last spring after North Idaho resident Sandy Patano filed a complaint alleging that the People’s Pen presents itself as an independent local newspaper but is really created and controlled by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.

At least 70,000 Idahoans received the fifth issue of the People’s Pen about a week before the May primary election. The 24-page publication featured multiple full-page political ads, including profiles of candidates recommended by the Kootenai County GOP.

Past issues included interviews with candidates and elected officials backed by the county’s Republican Central Committee, as well as information about the committee’s vetting process for candidates.

The names of a People’s Pen’s editor or publisher are not printed in the periodical and do not appear on its website.

Patano alleged that the Kootenai County GOP controlled the People’s Pen but did not disclose such, in violation of Idaho’s sunshine law, which requires that ads or other messages meant to support or oppose political candidates be declared with the Secretary of State’s Office.

Newspapers are exempt from this requirement, which means they can publish articles, editorials and other commentary without reporting the messages to the Secretary of State.

However, newspapers are not exempt if they are controlled by a political party, committee or candidate.

Brent Regan, the central committee’s chairman, told the Idaho Capital Sun in June that the Kootenai County GOP advertised in three issues of the People’s Pen but had no further involvement.

He also said he believed Patano’s complaint was politically motivated. Patano and her husband, former Idaho Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs, formed a group in March called North Idaho Republicans. The group asserts that the Kootenai County GOP does not represent the values ​​of most local conservatives.

Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck told The Press on Friday that his office determined that the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee paid for the print run of one issue of the People’s Pen.

The committee reported three expenditures for ads to TPC Holdings, the company that printed the People’s Pen. TPC Holdings also prints the Lewiston Tribune, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and about 100 other publications.

The Kootenai County GOP paid $13,579 in October 2021, as well as $22,136 this April and $41,631 in May.

Patano contended that the payments greatly exceeded market rate for print advertising.

An invoice furnished by the People’s Pen for a “very large amount” reportedly had a handwritten note instructing the central committee to pay the printer directly.

“Is that, in and of itself, a crime?” Houck said. “No. Is it suspicious? Yes. If they’re paying the entire bill, do they have control of the paper?”

In the months that followed, however, Houck said other advertisers began to pay the printer directly, as well. As a result, Kootenai County GOP paid a smaller share of the printing costs.

As more advertisers paid the printer directly, the central committee’s assertion that it was simply an advertiser appeared more plausible, according to Houck.

“With every month, the things that were awkward just looked like a really weird business practice, but nothing illegal,” Houck said.

Houck said his office worked in concert with the Idaho Attorney General’s Office to investigate and determine whether it made sense to pursue prosecution in the case.

The Republican Central Committee reported all contributions and expenditures in a timely manner, Houck said, and all money is accounted for. Legal ramifications for a violation are unclear.

Though odd, the case did not appear strong enough to justify spending the taxpayer dollars it would cost to litigate, Houck said.

When the original complaint was filed in April, the People’s Pen was registered only in Wyoming.

As a result of the investigation, the Attorney General’s Office sent a letter to the company’s registered agent in Wyoming, demanding that it register in Idaho.

The People’s Pen registered as a foreign entity in Idaho on May 31. The listed manager is Benewah County resident Hari Heath, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2020 Republican primary election for District 5A and has contributed several stories to the People’s Pen.

A letter sent to Patano last month from Secretary of State Lawerence Denney closed with a note that Patano may have another avenue to proceed with the complaint.

“At this time, our Office is closing the matter,” the letter said, “But wanted to let you know that there is a private right of action in Idaho Code§ 67-6626, should you disagree with this decision.”

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