‘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.


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.

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

MT Attorney General’s Office appeals District Judge campaign contribution ruling

The state department of justice is filing an appeal to a federal judge striking down Montana’s campaign contribution limits. This ruling from District Judge Charles Lovell removes spending limits on anyone running for office in the state.

The election waits just over a month away.

Judge Lovell says he wanted to put the ruling out as quickly as possible to allow it to take affect for the end of this campaign season. Conservative groups who brought this lawsuit against Montana’s campaign contribution laws are hailing U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell’s decision.

Judge Lovell issued a short, five-page ruling on Wednesday. He writes the court and the parties all agreed to place this matter on an expedited schedule so that it will be resolved prior to this year’s election.

Lovell agreed with those filing the suit in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allows unlimited corporate political spending—saying that spending is protected as free speech.

His decision strikes down a provision making it unlawful someone to misrepresent a candidate if the attack is known to be false. And it removes spending limits—limits for individuals, political committees, political parties and corporations.

As of our deadline, the state Attorney General’s Office was working to file a stay in the case with the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals to halt the ruling for now. The office of political practices is discussing with their lawyers how to exactly interpret the Lovell ruling.

American Tradition Partnership is one of the plaintiffs in the suit against the state’s laws. The group is responsible for other recent lawsuits striking Montana’s century-old Corrupt Practices Act and the state’s ban on partisan endorsements of judicial candidates.

Both suits were successful using Citizens United as their rationale. The limits that were struck down in this latest case range from one hundred sixty dollars that an individual can contribute to a state House candidate, up a total of almost $23 thousand dollars that a gubernatorial candidate can accept from all political party committees.

The law also limited aggregate donations from political parties. A candidate for governor, for instance, was limited to accepting a maximum of $22,600 from all political party committees.

Montana Director of American Tradition Partnership, Doug Lair said in a statement that “The old contributions limits were so low candidates had no choice but to grovel before special interests to get elected.”

An initiative on this November ballot seeks to make a nonbinding statement that corporations are not people and should not be able to donate to political campaigns–Initiative-166

Treasurer of the campaigning supporting that initiative CB Pearson calls this latest ruling absurd.

“All Montanans should be vitally concerned that an outside group, American Tradition Partnership has through litigation undermined all of our campaign finance laws and they won’t even say who is funding their efforts,” Pearson said. “We support the Attorney General’s efforts to get a stay on this decision, it’s got to be one of the worst campaign finance decisions in the history of Montana.”

Like it or not, Lovell’s decision is the new campaign contribution law of the land right now, with five weeks to go until voting day.

MT Supreme Court keeps I-166 on ballot, throws out LR-123

The Montana Supreme Court today decided the status of two ballot measures slated for the 2012 election. The court dismissed a petition seeking to remove Initiative 166 from the ballot. That initiative establishes a state policy that corporations are not people.

Another measure submitted to the voters by the State Legislature, has been stricken from the ballot.

A political committee called ‘Montanans Opposed to I-166’ filed the petition to get that initiative removed from the ballot. That committee includes Helena Republican State Senator Dave Lewis. The petition argues the initiative is unconstitutional and the State Attorney General’s Office should have thrown it out in their legal review of all the ballot measures. Attorney for the committee Chris Gallus says he’s disappointed the state’s high court dismissed the petition.

“I think the Attorney General does or should have the authority to look at a proposed measure and just on it’s face determine if it violates Constitutional mandates to appear on the ballot,” he said.

State Law Librarian Judy Meadows says the Court threw out the petition because while yes, the Initiative may not line up with parts of the Constitution—that’s the point. The initiative would change the Constitution.

“The Attorney Generals responsibility does not include consideration of the substantive legality of the issue if it has been approved by the voters,” Meadows said. “So it’s basically up to the voters to decide whether they think this will be Constitutional or not.”

She adds the Montana Supreme Court cannot add or subtract items from the Constitution or block new material. Neither can the Attorney General.

“The only people who can change that and do something about it are the voters themselves,” she said.

Initiative 166 Campaign Treasurer C.B. Pearson is happy with the court’s ruling.

“We thought this was a frivolous lawsuit from the beginning, by a bunch of corporate hired guns. It’s never a good thing when people try to prevent Montanans from voting for issues,” Pearson said.

Attorney for ‘Montanans Opposed to I-166’ Chris Gallus, says he is filing a different complaint with District Court. But for now, the initiative will make the ballot.

That will not be the case for LR-123. This was submitted to the voters by the legislature. It would require state budget surpluses be returned to tax payers. The Supreme Court agreed with a District Court Ruling saying the measure is unconstitutional.

But the court did not file opinions, yet. State Law Librarian Judy Meadows says the court knew some ruling was needed as soon as possible so ballots and voter information packets can be printed.

“They had the votes, they knew exactly what was going to happen, that they were going to uphold what the District Court did. But they’re not ready to write anything, it’s August. They’re on vacation,” she said.

The court says analysis and rationale for this decision will follow in due course.