‘FRONTLINE’ program inspires protest against corporate political spending

American Tradition Partnership Legal Counsel James Brown offers Halloween candy to protesters Wednesday

The group American Tradition Partnership, formerly known as Western Tradition Partnership, has been responsible for many of Montana’s campaign laws being thrown out this year. An ATP lawsuit led to the U.S. Supreme Court throwing out Montana’s century old Corrupt Practices Act, which banned corporations from spending in Montana elections.

Tuesday night, the PBS program FRONTLINE focused on American Tradition Partnership and its influence on Montana election, finding evidence of ATP illegally coordinating with candidates in Montana.

ATP is not taking those allegations lightly.

Supporters of a Montana ballot measure seeking to get corporate money out of elections protested outside the Lewis and Clark Library in Helena Wednesday. They were hearing from Governor Brian Schweitzer the U.S. Supreme Court is wrong in ruling money equals speech.

“Money isn’t speech,” Schweitzer boomed to the crowd, “It doesn’t cost a damn dime to stand up and speak to the citizens of this country!”

The ballot measure is Initiative-166. Campaign Treasurer C.B. Pearson said the rally was organized in response to the FRONTLINE program “Big Sky, Big Money” aired earlier this week.

“It may end up being the biggest political scandal Montana has had in over 100 years,” Pearson said.

Missoula paralegal Kristin Marshall said she drove down to Helena just to protest in the rally. She said the FRONTLINE program gave her some definitive evidence about the money flowing into Montana politics from nonprofit corporations like American Tradition Partnership.

The show looks to see how the United States Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision is affecting politics. That decision allows corporations or unions to spend unlimited money on politics as long as that money is independent of campaigns and the candidates themselves.

The program correspondent in “Big Sky, Big Money” and host of American Public Media’s ‘Marketplace’ Kai Ryssdal says people often miss the main point of the Citizens United decision.

“Which is this idea of independent expenditures,” Ryssdal said. “The court said specifically these expenditures have to be independent and as a result will not corrupt.”

Ryssdal says what the episode does is provide evidence that American Tradition Partnership had been coordinating with candidates. That evidence was a box of campaign documents found in a Colorado meth house, containing surveys from conservative candidates in Montana, and campaign mailers saying they were paid by the campaigns but appear to be coordinated by American Tradition Partnership.

The former director of strategic programming for the group, Christian Lefer, says the documents were in his wife’s car, which was stolen. ATP says the Office of Political Practices has had the documents for a year and a half without making any accusations of wrongdoing.

Helmville Republican representative Mike Miller was one of the candidates with a questionnaire in the box of discovered campaign materials. Miller said in an email response to questions that there has been no coordination between himself and ATP. He filled out a survey, but says he has done that many times.

Frontline’s Kai Ryssdal says that does make sense.

“It is entirely possible that candidates did not know what they were getting involved with when they filled out these questionaires. Candidates get as you know, questionairres from all kinds of groups, independent groups, outsite groups you name it, they want to know where candidates stand on their specific issues,” Ryssdal said.

Ryssdal says that’s one of the questions he’s still left with after working on “Big Sky, Big Money”; how much did these candidates know about their dealings with American Tradition Partnership? It’s not the only question.

“I think the bigger question is the one the FRONTLINE story tried to answer, which is how much does it matter whether citizens are able to know the sources of funding in campaigns and candidacies. We don’t have the answer yet and reasonable people disagree,” he said.

The Helena protesters later marched to the office of Attorney James Brown, legal counsel for American Tradition Partnership and a prominent character in the FRONTLINE program.

He was waiting for them with a large tin filled with Halloween Candy. Brown offered the candy to the loud, ridiculing protesters.

“You know, you can sit here and harass me for engaging in free speech and association,” he said. “The fact of the matter is you’re free to engage in your right to peacefully assemble, my clients are free to engage in their free speech and association rights. I think you should respect their rights as much.”

He faulted the group for coming to his office and protesting his work as an attorney. He asked them instead to seek to strengthen disclosure laws through local lawmakers.

“Your remedies are with the legislature not with attorneys for groups trying to protect their first amendment rights,” Brown said.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH FRONTLINE: “BIG SKY, BIG MONEY”

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