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

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.

Selection Committee to submit choices for new Political Practices Commissioner to Governor

The four top leaders from the state legislature are set to meet tomorrow in Helena to choose top candidates to be the next Commissioner of Political Practices.

Former Commissioner Dave Gallik resigned last month following after co-workers accused him of ethics violations. Gallik denies those claims.

The selection committee’s candidates move to the governor’s desk for consideration.

15 candidates are currently asking to be considered for the Political Practices Commissioner. The Political Practices office upholds campaign finance laws. So it’s not the best time to be without a commissioner.

Legislative Services Executive Director Susan Byorth Fox says at least it’s early in the election season.

“I think there’s a backlog of some of the cases so it’s important we get this filled as soon as possible,” Fox said.

The selection committee is made up of the majority and minority leaders for both the state house and senate.They will look at the candidates and narrow those down to 2 to 5 names. State statute requires this committee to meet. Byorth Fox said it’s intended to assist the Governor.

“If the leaders of the 4 caucuses, we’ve got both parties represented, both chambers. If they can come up with a list, then a certain level of vetting and I think it’s a level of buy-in,” Byorth Fox said.

Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer can choose from the candidate list given to him. But he doesn’t have to, he can choose whomever he wishes.

“But he does have to do it within 30 days of the vacancy so we figure that to be February 17th,” he said.

Commissioner Dave Gallik is the second Commissioner to leave the post early. The Governor’s previous choice, Jennifer Hennsley was not confirmed by the Senate during the 2011 Legislature.

House Speaker Republican Mike Milburn suggests the Governor choose carefully this time around.

“The last two did not work out…we’re hoping he does not make that mistake again. We’re going to present to him somebody who we believe will be fair and honest and do a good job–look at every case objectively,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Democrat Carol Williams thinks the selection committee will take their job seriously and choose good candidates in this important election year. She’s not sure how the Governor will choose this time.

“I think he’s seriously nominated people that he had considered and probably talked about about their view of the office. My sense is that he made the best decision that he could at the time and these things just happen,” Williams said.

Republican speaker Milburn has a different take. He thinks the Governor’s previous two posts have been too partisan for the Political Practices Commissioner. Governor Schweitzer is in China this week and his office did not return calls seeking comment.