‘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 121, denying certain state services to illegal aliens

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.

Ellie Hill Commentary: “Montanans Unite to Fight Against Corporate Take-over”

William Clark, a copper king from our great state, bought a Senate seat in 1899. He famously said, “I never met a man who wasn’t for sale.”
Thereafter, we, the people of Montana, enacted a law limiting political spending by corporations because we, the people of Montana, didn’t want wealthy corporations buying our democracy. One hundred years later, we haven’t changed our minds.
In late June, the United States Supreme Court summarily reversed the Montana Supreme Court, saying that the century-old, collective will of the citizens of Montana is at odds with their 2010 Citizens United decision wherein the high court declared that corporations have the same rights as people and unlimited campaign spending equates to constitutionally protected free speech. In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court just sold our state to the highest bidder.
Montana legislators, on both sides of the aisle, are what we call citizen legislators. We are not professional politicians. Individual Montanans, like school teachers, farmers, students, sportsmen, and stay-at-home moms and dads can only donate $160 for our elections. This is because Montanans wanted individuals like school teachers, farmers, students, sportsmen, and stay-at-home moms and dads to decide how their own state was run.
Whether in Choteau, Billings or Missoula, most elections for the Montana Legislature cost between $4,000-$6,000. Those days are over. With this decision, the floodgates are wide open for insurance companies, oil companies, tobacco companies, foreign companies and any other super PAC to dump tens of thousands of dollars into our local elections and thereby silence any citizen legislator, who instead of becoming a puppet to the special interests of big, out-of-state corporations, fight for the future generations of all Montanans.
In Montana we’ve always known we are blessed with rich resources, and now five justices in Washington, D.C., just made us one of the cheapest dates in the country. Please pay attention, Montanans, as this is not about Republicans versus Democrats, but about the individual voices of everyday Montanans being drowned by a corporate take-over.
It’s time to fight back. Let’s reclaim our democracy by passing a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. Here in Montana, over 30,000 Montana voters signed the petition to place this issue on the ballot in November. Initiative 166, will make it Montana state policy that corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights because they are not human beings—and– that money is property, not constitutionally protected free speech. The measure also charges our elected officials, including our Congressional delegation, to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to overturn Citizens United.

But before we have the chance to vote FOR I-166 in November, we have one more hurdle to cross. The corporate interests have launched an effort to block Montana voters from even voting on this citizens’ initiative, by filing a lawsuit with the Montana Supreme Court to throw I-166 off of the ballot. Clearly, the big-monied interests think they should be allowed to buy our elections and don’t think the people of Montana should have a voice in this matter. This lawsuit is nothing more than corporate hired guns trying to deny the people of Montana a chance to vote on a citizen initiative, one that clearly states corporations aren’t people and money is not speech.

Stand up, my fellow Montanans, stand up – we are not alone. Twenty two states joined Attorney General Steve Bullock in his valiant defense of Montana democracy before the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s send the message back to Washington, D.C., that in Montana, it’s we the people, not we the corporations, and in Montana, we ain’t done yet.
You can learn more about the I-166 campaign and get involved at: http://www.StandWithMontanans.org.

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.

Campaign Beat July 27th – Ed, Mike and Chuck and more on breast cancer funding

On this edition of Campaign Beat, reporter Edward O’Brien talks with Lee Newspaper reporters Mike Dennison and Chuck Johnson about the ongoing debate about breast cancer treatment in Montana’s U.S. Senate race and the latest on a few of the initiatives that will – and will not – appear on November’s ballot. …

Campaign Beat July 13 – Chuck, Sally and Mike talk money, politics and high rollers…

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 campaign finance reports in the governor’s race, I-166 making the ballot, the House vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, fundraising in the U.S. Senate race, and presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s brief stop in the Bitterroot…

Deadline passes for petition signature efforts; no results for a month

Time is up for turning in petition signatures for the November Ballot. Advocates for various ballot initiatives have been been asking voters to sign these petitions for months now. Two initiatives look very likely to make the ballot, with others uncertain.

But the Secretary of State’s office says a lot of work has to be done before we know what makes the ballot.

Here’s what we do know. IR-124 will appear on the November Ballot. That’s the initiative that puts the Medical Marijuana reform bill passed by the last legislature before voters. We’ve actually known that for a while now. Signature gatherers got their totals in very early.

Then there’s Initiative 166. This is the non-binding requirement that elected Montana officials put into place policies saying corporations are not people. Sponsors released a statement this week saying they have turned in enough signatures too.

“But I would just like to remind people that there is still a certification and tabulation process that could change the number of those signatures that were turned in,” said Communications Director for the Montana Secretary of State’s Office Terri McCoy. The turning-in of signatures is far from the last word on initiatives.

“Every single signature is checked and verified,” she said, “and not only verified that you are a voter in the state but that your signature matches what you have on record with your voter registration.”

County election officials do this across the state. For initiatives altering state policy, they need to count almost 25-thousand signatures. For those altering the state Constitution, it’s almost 50 thousand.

Lewis and Clark County Elections Supervisor Marilyn Bracken says they won’t be able to even start counting the signatures until they get through the big stack of voter registration cards that go along with many of those signatures. She says that’s unusual—so many people registering to vote in order to sign petitions.

“That didn’t used to happen that way, we didn’t used to get a big stack of registrations that kind of slows us down because we can’t do the petitions until the registrations are in. Otherwise there’d be a lot of people and it wouldn’t qualify,” Bracken said.

Officials are counting for four other initiatives right now—including one defining personhood as beginning at conception. But the Secretary of State’s office won’t be releasing the final signature counts until July 20th.


Campaign Beat May 4th – Sally and Chuck talk polls and absentee voting…

On this edition of “Campaign Beat”, our weekly political analysis program, News Director Sally Mauk talks with Lee newspaper reporter Chuck Johnson about what the latest polls show in Montana’s U.S. Senate race, I-166, the high number of absentee ballots, and what that might mean for the primary election…


Schweitzer, Bohlinger sign on to support I-166

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer signs a petition for I-166 with former MT Sec. of State Verner Bertelson (center) and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger on Thursday

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and Lieutenant Governor John Bohlinger threw their full support behind an initiative seeking to ban corporate campaign spending in Montana elections on Thursday.

Schwietzer and Bohlinger signed the petition to put Initiative 166 on the November ballot during a ceremony attended by reporters and supporters of the Initiative.

The initiative would establish a state policy that corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights. It’s in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, which says bans on corporate campaign spending are unconstitutional. That decision means I-166 has no legally binding way to prevent corporate political spending. Governor Schweitzer says that’s ok–the initiative is meant to send a message about values.

“We are going to lead a movement for this entire country that says individual citizens are going to stand up and say our government is not for sale. And that’s what signing this means. It says you can’t buy our government. The government belongs to the people,” Schweitzer said.

The group sponsoring this initiative, Common Cause Montana says Montana is the only state considering an initiative like this right now. Organizers need to gather nearly 25 thousand signatures across the state by June 22nd in order for the initiative to be placed on the November ballot.