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.