HELENA, Mont. (AP) " Financial disclosure statements filed by a Montana Republican in his bid for Congress show $240,000 in investments in index funds with substantial holdings in Russian firms under sanctions by the U.S. government.
The sanctions were put in place by the Obama administration three years ago because of Russia's annexation of Crimea.
The revelations gave Democrat Rob Quist fresh ammunition to lob against Greg Gianforte ahead of a debate Saturday night that could be their only televised faceoff before the May 25 special congressional election. Libertarian Mark Wicks will also take part in the debate.
Money was a key issue of the debate, with Quist and Wicks teaming up against Gianforte to denounce the amount of cash he has thrown not only into the race for congress but also the $6 million of his own money he spent on his failed bid for governor last year.
Quist urged voters to "make a statement that Montana cannot be bought and cannot be for sale."
Gianforte, who made millions when he sold his software company, RightNow Technolgoies, to Oracle has been unapologetic about his wealth.
"I can't be bought, and my allegiance will be to you," Gianforte spoke into the camera.
With just 26 days left until the special election, the candidates have little time left to gain traction with voters.
Wicks pleaded with viewers to consider him as a sensible alternative to the two major party candidates, saying he would be an independent voice in Congress for Montana.
"Montana, there is a third choice," Wicks said.
The candidates tackled topics ranging from gun rights to health care, including the repeal of the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act.
It remains to be seen whether news of Gianforte's investment ties to Russia will be a major issue in a campaign that has garnered national attention.
"I think before we pass any judgment, we need additional context," said David Parker, a professor of political science at Montana State University. "It might not sound too good, but I'm not really sure if this is a large deal."
It's not uncommon for investors dipping into global markets to have Russian companies in their portfolios, Gianforte's campaign says. The investments are just a small part of Gianforte's assets, which range between $96 million and $327 million, according to disclosures he is required to file with the U.S. House of Representatives.
"He's already promised Montanans that he will place his investments in a blind trust to guarantee there is never a conflict of interest," said Brock Lowrance, Gianforte's campaign manager. "When someone is investing in global markets, it's not unusual to see investments like this."
National Republican groups are spending heavily in the race to keep the post in Republican hands. National Democrats have also begun investing money in the race, but the party's priority appears to be in backing another candidate in a June special election in Georgia.
The Quist campaign has latched onto the revelations first reported by the Guardian, a British newspaper, on Friday.
"Montanans have a right to know why Greg Gianforte held onto these questionable Russian investments and why he kept his Russian ties secret during his failed run for governor last year," Quist spokeswoman Tina Olechowski said.
Gianforte campaign officials said they expect the investments to come up in Saturday's debate and were preparing to respond. The campaign has acknowledged about $150,000 in investments with VanEck Vectors Russian and about $92,000 with IShares MSCF Russia. Both companies deal in exchange-traded funds, which are similar to mutual funds but are traded on stock exchanges.
Even before Saturday's debate began, there were questions over whether Quist would be allowed to wear his cowboy hat during the debate. It's no small detail for a candidate who is trying to charm voters with his folksy, everyman persona to contrast with Gianforte's more aggressive and all-business demeanor.
Gianforte and Quist have previously squared off during meetings with the editorial boards of two Lee Newspapers, in Billings on Tuesday and in Helena on Friday.