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The two boxes of documents involved in this grand jury subpoena originally made their way to the Montana Political Practices Commissioner from what’s been described as a “meth house” in Colorado.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.

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.