Republican Legislator proposes bills to bring some light to dark money

Representative Rob Cook (R-Conrad)

Representative Rob Cook (R-Conrad)

Representative Rob Cook (R-Conrad) has introduced two bills he calls a “necessary first step on the long road to true campaign reform.”

After the deluge of anonymous political spending in the 2012 election, campaign finance has become a top issue of the 2013 Legislature.

Representative Cook’s bills are modest compared to other reforms suggested by lawmakers. His first bill (HB254) would require election materials such as flyers to include disclaimers if they were paid for with anonymous funds through Political Action Committees.

As it stands, the disclaimer would look like this:

“This communication has been funded by anonymous sources. It is the responsibility of the voter to determine the veracity of the statements being made and the true character of the organization behind this communication.”

Representative Cook says he is amenable to making that disclaimer shorter.

Cook’s second bill (HB255) would require certain PACs to submit expense summaries to the Commissioner of Political Practices detailing money spent opposing or supporting candidates or issues. The Commissioner would then make this report public and offer it to the donors to that particular PAC.

Cook cited the dark-money group American Tradition Partnership as an example of the organizations about which he is trying to find more information.

“I wanna know where you played, who you played against or for, and how much you spent,” Cook said.
State Director of Right to Life Montana Greg Trude opposes both bills.
“Is this going to absolutely make it so someone like ATP is going to disclose,” Trude said about Cook’s first bill. “Or is somebody going to have to hunt them down. It’s going to be a big waste of time as far as I’m concerned.”
He also argued both bills unfairly encroach on First Amendment rights. No action was taken on either bill Monday.

Federal grand jury seizes disputed ATP documents

The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices says a federal grand jury has subpoenaed documents formerly belonging to a consultant working for the conservative group American Tradition Partnership. Commissioner Jim Murry revealed the subpoena in response to a state District Judge’s request for the documents earlier this week.

The so-called “Colorado Documents” made national news after being prominently featured by the PBS program “FRONTLINE.”

The two boxes of documents involved in this grand jury subpoena originally made their way to the Montana Political Practices Commissioner from what’s been described as a “meth house” in Colorado. The boxes contain documents that PBS “FRONTLINE” and the website ProPublica say show potential illegal coordination between conservative candidates in Montana and the nonprofit advocacy group American Tradition Partnership or ATP. The documents also contain information about donors to ATP.

The group has gained notoriety in the last few years for successfully challenging a number of Montana’s campaign finance laws and for sending out advertising against Democratic and moderate Republican candidates.

An ATP consultant, Christian Lefer, claimed the documents were his, stolen out of his wife’s car in Denver.

Earlier this week, District Judge Nels Swandal directed Political Practices Commissioner Jim Murry turn over the documents to his court.

Judge Swandal says the documents clearly appear to be stolen property and are thus evidence in the investigation of that Denver car theft. Furthermore, Judge Swandal accuses Commissioner Murry of giving the documents to national news media in an “apparent effort to embarrass certain candidates on the eve of the 2012 election.”

“I think Judge Swandal was trouble that not only the commissioner of political practices would keep it a secret that he had them but he would turn the documents over to the public without so much as warning the Lefer’s that he was going to do that,” said Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades, who represents Christian Lefer in this case.

But after Judge Swandal’s Tuesday request for the documents, commissioner Murry said in a Thursday statement he could not provide them. Murry told the judge they had been taken on Wednesday by Federal Authorities under a grand jury subpoena.

Attorney Quentin Rhoades says that seems oddly coincidental that “the day after the Commissioner of Political Practices receives the order from an experienced and well respected state court judge that suddenly a federal subpoena appears on his desk.”

Political Practices Commissioner Jim Murry is not providing comment on the case. And federal grand jury documents are confidential, so no comment from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Rhoades says Democratic political interests are mounted against his clients. He says further release of the Colorado documents could cause irreparable harm to his clients and American Tradition Partnership.

“What the donors to American Tradition Partnership wish to remain is anonymous and if that cannot be guaranteed then the donors are going to be a lot more reluctant to give to American Tradition,” he said.

In response to saying the documents themselves that have been made public through the Frontline program do show evidence of coordination, particularly of some conservative legislative candidates in the state of Montana, Rhoades said,“that’s simply false, and you can’t point me to any documents, any evidence of that. I’ll challenge you, send me one, and if you can I’ll be happy to look at it. But I’ve looked at all the documents that Pro-Publica and Frontline put on the internet. They don’t prove anything.”

At least two Republican Montana Lawmakers disagree with Rhoades. Kalispell Senator Bruce Tutvedt and Big Timber Representative John Esp have filed complaints with the Political Practices office, saying the “Colorado Documents” do show coordination between ATP and their primary opponents.

Judge drops ATP lawsuit against state

Judge Jeffrey Sherlock has effectively dropped a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit American Tradition Partnership against Montana election officials, and will be handing out fines to the conservative advocacy organization.

Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce tells us the sanction comes in response to ATP not providing requested information to the court.

The conservative American Tradition Partnership identifies as a social welfare and education organization.

It’s become well-known for filing several successful lawsuits against Montana’s election laws and for sending out advertising against Democratic and moderate Republican candidates.

ATP says its status as a social welfare organization means it can keep its donors secret.

And that brings us to this most recent decision by District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock.

Complaints were filed against ATP in 2008 and 2010 saying the group was breaking election laws. The Commissioner of Political Practices agreed and issued penalties to ATP. ATP turned around and sued the state for that decision, saying Montana’s election laws are unconstitutional.

“Actually the case was brought by them,” said Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock. He was bringing that up because in an ironic turn, this lawsuit is now serving to penalize ATP.

“I think the order signals the beginning of the end of their lawless activities in our state,” Bullock said.

ATP says as a social welfare and education organization it doesn’t have to follow the laws of political groups.

For the lawsuit, the state requested information from ATP to check this out for themselves. As Attorney General Bullock said, it’s a common practice.

“In any lawsuit you can ask for information from both parties, it’s called discovery and what happened here is they refused to comply with providing the information to us and to the court,” Bullock said.

This is information like expenditure records, donor lists, as well as directors and member information. Bullock says his office had been trying to get this information for months before Judge Sherlock issued his own court order for the information.

Judge Sherlock ordered the records be provided in July of this year, then extended the deadline until August 20th. ATP did not provide information for the discovery orders until the first of November, a stack of paper two inches thick. Those documents did answer a lot of the court’s questions, but not all of them—like employee records or the minutes of ATP meetings.

It’s hard not to pick up the tone of frustration from Judge Sherlock in his most recent order.

“The judge went so far as saying never in his 24 years of being a judge has he experienced a party like this,” Bullock said.

Sherlock goes that far several times, actually.

ATP will need to pay the state’s attorney fees for this case and can be fined for the original complaints brought against it in 2008 and 2010. And ATP still has to provide the information requested in the discovery.

Sherlock says the court is no longer interested in hearing objections from ATP, all the court wants is answers.

ATP Executive Director Donny Ferguson released a statement , saying “we are disappointed in Judge Sherlock’s ruling but will honor it and will continue our fight to protect…our first amendment right to speak free from government interference and regulation.”

See Judge Sherlock’s order here:

Judge Sherlock Order on Motion for Sanctions

FEATURE: ATP Legal Counsel Jim Brown on how he believes the group is following the law

The nonprofit corporation American Tradition Partnership has become a major player in the last few Montana elections.

ATP considers itself a social welfare and education organization. In Republican primaries, it sends out mailers attacking some moderate candidates as being too liberal. In general elections, it switches to attacking Democratic candidates.

ATP says its status as a social welfare organization means it can keep its donors secret. Montana officials argue otherwise and the issue is currently before the courts.

In this feature, Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce speaks with American Tradition Partnership Legal Counsel, Helena lawyer Jim Brown—who says his clients are following the law.

Dan also speaks with former Montana Solicitor and current UM Law Professor Anthony Johnstone about ATP’s claims it can keep its money sources hidden.

Sally Mauk and political scientists Chris Muste and Rob Saldin preview the election…

Sally Mauk, Chris Muste, Rob Saldin

The long campaign season ends tomorrow when the votes are counted and we find out the winners and losers. Polls show almost all the top tier races in Montana, including the race for U.S. Senate and the governor’s seat, are in a virtual tie. News Director Sally Mauk sat down today with our political analysts – University of Montana political science professors Rob Saldin and Christopher Muste to preview the possible election outcomes…

Campaign Beat Nov 2 – Sally, Chuck and Mike talk polls, break-in’s and ads…

Chuck Johnson, Sally Mauk, Mike Dennison

On this edition of “Campaign Beat”, our weekly political analysis program, News Director Sally Mauk talks with Lee newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison about the latest poll showing a LOT of tight races, the ongoing brouhaha over American Tradition Partnership, and the new ads that run from the scary – to the odd…

Police investigate break-in at Political Practices Office

Helena law enforcement officers are investigating a Wednesday night break-in at the office of the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. Staff at the office are not yet sure if anything has been taken.

The Commissioner of Political Practices upholds state campaign finance laws. The office made headlines earlier this week after an episode of the PBS program FRONTLINE. The show revealed the Political Practices office had received evidence conservative candidates in Montana have been coordinating with the nonprofit American Tradition Partnership—which, if true, would be illegal.

It’s unclear whether the break-in had anything to do with the FRONTLINE episode.

Helena Police Captain Steve Hagen says the break-in happened Wednesday shortly before 10 PM

“We got a call that there was a burglary at the Montana Office of Commissioner for Political Practices,” Hagen said.

“And somebody had apparently entered our office and there was a light left on downstairs in the area where we archive a lot of our records and files,” said Political Practices Commissioner Jim Murry on Thursday.

His office has not yet found anything missing. Murry says the boxes of contested documents belonging to former American Tradition Partnership consultant Christian Lefer were kept down in the basement until recently.

“Those records and those documents are in a secure place,” Murry said, a place not in the unassuming blue house a block from the Capitol Building where his office is located.

The FRONTLINE program “Big Sky, Big Money” details how the Commissioner’s office received the boxes of campaign materials in March of 2011. Inside the boxes, surveys filled out by candidates, campaign mailers saying they were paid for by the respective campaigns.

But the FRONTLINE program says these materials appear to be coordinated by the nonprofit American Tradition Partnership, formerly known as Western Tradition Partnership.

“My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that WTP was running a lot of these campaigns,” Political Practices Office Investigator Julie Steab in the episode.

Groups like American Tradition Partnership are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising, but they cannot coordinate with candidates or campaigns.

“(It’s) Potentially very serious…well, very important information within these documents. The office had these boxes for years. Why was nothing done? Why no complaints filed?” I asked Murry.

“You know, we have a very small staff here, only four people besides myself. The records were there and we just didn’t spend a lot of time going through them. We did take a look at them, I looked at them,” Murry said.

Murry says the staff did see evidence of potentially illegal coordination between ATP and the candidates. He says he recognizes now the records may be more important than he originally thought.

“Even seeing just the slightest hint there might be coordination. Doesn’t this mean this issue should have been of utmost importance and should have been a priority for this office?” I asked.

“It was a priority,” Murry answered. “We made the information available to people who could take the time to go through it and examine the documents there. I’m not trying to dismiss any responsibility that we have in this regard.”

Murry says the office did not receive specific compaints on the documents and therefore did not really have any standing to use the materials in recent court cases surrounding campaign finance. American Tradition Partnership Executive Director Donny Ferguson says the Political Practices Office holding onto the documents as long as they did proves ATP “always follows the law.”

Murry says PBS was able to take the time to thoroughly look through the documents for the FRONTLINE program.

Tuesday morning, hours before FRONTLINE aired, Christian Lefer filed a lawsuit against Commissioner Murry to get these documents back. Lefer says the materials were stolen from his wife’s car in Denver, Colorado. They wound up in a Colorado Meth house and were later sent to the Montana Political Practices office.

Lefer says Murry is in possession of his stolen property. The lawsuit says the documents will cause irreparable harm to Lefer and his business in that proprietary information about the workings of the business will be revealed if the documents are released to the public.

Murry says for now, the documents will not be released again.

“This could very well involve a criminal investigation and so we’re not gonna make those records available to anybody else until we get court direction on how we should handle that,” Murry said.

Meanwhile, Helena Police continue to investigate the Wednesday night break-in.

‘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.


Sally Mauk talks with investigative journalist Paul Abowd about American Tradition Partnership…

    It’s not easy to know who is funding the Colorado-based group known as “American Tradition Partnership” – and that’s fine with them. ATP is the group that has been successfully challenging Montana’s longstanding restrictions on campaign financing. Those lawsuits are not only changing Montana’s political landscape, but have national implications as well.
Paul Abowd is an investigative journalist with the  non-partisan, non-profit Center for Public Integrity based in Washington, D.C. He has a new article out about American Tradition Partnership’s donors and affiliations. (You can find the article at In tonight’s feature interview, Abowd talks with News Director Sally Mauk about what he found out when he began investigating ATP soon after they filed their initial suit against Montana last spring:

BOTH SIDES: I-166, establishing a state policy that corporations are not people

This week we’ve been looking at the ballot measures up for voter approval this November. We now move to Initiative 166, a law establishing a statewide policy saying corporations are not people. The initiative attempts to respond to a string of court decisions gutting Montana’s campaign spending laws.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reinstated a campaign contribution law struck down by District Judge Charles Lovell last week. The court granted the emergency stay requested by the state Attorney General’s office, saying Judge Lovell did not provide enough information to justify throwing out state donation limits. Lovell has responded with a 38-page document supporting his originally terse decision. The 9th circuit has yet to answer that.

Earlier this year, Lovell struck laws requiring attack ads to disclose voting records as well as a ban on knowingly false statements in those ads. A federal appeals court overturned the state’s ban on partisan endorsements of judicial candidates. And this summer the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Montana’s century old Corrupt Practices act, which banned corporate spending in elections.

The catalyst behind all these decisions has been the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, one of the court’s most controversial of the last decade. That ruling allows corporations or unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on advertisements directly in favor of or against political candidates. Before the ruling, individuals within that corporation would have to spend their own money—and the amount was limited.

“We’ve had a fair system of elections. We’ve benefited from that. Now the Supreme Court is saying ‘no, you have to have corruption,” said CB Pearson, the campaign treasurer for  the committee supporting I-166, Stand With Montanans.

Here’s how the ballot starts:

“Initiative 166 establishes a state policy that corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights because they are not human beings, and charges Montana elected and appointed officials, state and federal, to implement that policy.”

At first, it sounds pretty broad, the full ballot language focuses more directly on corporate campaign contributions.


Basically, it’s calling on state leaders to do whatever they can to reverse or work around Citizens United.

Pearson says large multi-national businesses should not be able to spend at will from their corporate treasuries to influence elections.

“That means just as they buy cars or nails…they just want to buy politics for an end result and that end result is profit and it may not have the people of Montana’s best interests at heart,” Pearson said.

However, the decision has no legally binding way to prevent corporate political spending, because of Citizens United. It would more or less be a statement from the people. Proponents still think it’s an important statement to make, like 94 year old former Republican Secretary of State, Verner Bertelsen.

“This becomes a tremendously big national issue not only in Montana but all the states of the union,” Bertelsen said.

Bertelsen thinks a movement to reverse Citizens United could start in a rural state, spreading across the country—eventually to the halls of congress.

“The end point is a constitutional amendment,” he said.

Republican State Senator Dave Lewis opposes the Initiative.

“If the people of Montana vote for this, nothing is going to happen,” he said, because to pass a constitutional amendment, “it takes two thirds of the members of congress and three quarters of the states to approve it and I do not see that as even possible…It seems like such a waste of time and effort to put it on the ballot and ask people to vote for it.”

And then there are those who oppose I-166 because they want Citizens United in place, like Montana Shooting sports association president Gary Marbut. His association is a nonprofit corporation that pursues and promotes pro-gun policies. And Marbut says Citizens United gives his organization the opportunity to be a political player in a way it never has been.

“We’re not Exxon, we’re not Citibank, we’re a nonprofit corporation of like-minded individuals joined together in a common purpose,” Marbut said.

He says his nonprofit should be able to spend money to try to affect policy. He says that’s why it exists, why the members pay dues.

The conservative group American Tradition Partnership has been behind several of the lawsuits against Montana’s campaign laws. The group has been arguing spending money on ads, even false ones, falls under freedom of speech guaranteed in the first amendment. Meanwhile, the State Attorney General’s office is seeking sanctions against American tradition, calling it a shadowy front group illegally trying to conceal its political spending.

District Judge Charles Lovell says much has been made of whether striking Montana’s contribution limit is good policy and good for Montana. But he says the case is not about good policy, he says it’s about following the law set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United.

With I-166, Montana voters will say whether or not they feel the nation’s highest court was wise in setting that law.

This story uses excerpts from my Montana PBS special on the ballot measures, “From the People: Montana’s 2012 Ballot Measures”

–The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Related Posts:

BOTH SIDES: LR 122, prohibiting the government from mandating the purchase of health insurance

BOTH SIDES: LR 121, denying certain state services to illegal aliens

BOTH SIDES: LR 120, requiring parental notification prior to abortion for a minor