A group with Bozeman ties used a "sham organization" to funnel thousands of dollars into legislative races across Montana, Montana's political practices commissioner said in a blistering ruling released Thursday afternoon.
The group, Western Tradition Partnership, is the same group that successfully sued Montana over its law banning corporate spending in Montana elections.
The "sham organization" was the Bozeman-based political action committee, the Coalition for Energy and the Environment.
In a sweeping investigation of the group, Commissioner Dennis Unsworth found that WTP solicited unlimited corporate contributions to support pro-mining, pro-logging and pro-development candidates in Montana. WTP told potential donors that it aimed to combat radical environmentalists and "beat them at their own game" and ensured that by giving to WTP, the corporations' contributions would remain secret.
WTP avoided disclosing who gave it money by passing the dollars along to the Coalition for Energy and the Environment, which in turn ran attack ads against 10 Democratic candidates in 2008, Unswoth wrote.
Even then, Unsworth wrote, CEE may not have been totally honest with how much money it received. It reported receiving large contributions from a few people associated with WTP, including former state Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, totalling $12,000 in 2008. However, an IRS tax form listing both WTP and CEE reported the groups received $665,725 that year.
"It is likely CEE's campaign-finance reports do not fully disclose the amount and true source of funds used to oppose candidates," Unsworth wrote. "Reported contributions came in relatively large amounts, and only from those directly associated with the (political action) committees. This raises a money-laundering concern."
Unsworth concluded that WTP was involved in electioneering and broke Montana laws requiring groups seeking to influence elections to disclose who gave them money.
WTP's failure to "publicly disclose the true source and disposition of funds it used ... raises the specter of corruption of the electoral process and clearly justifies an action seeking civil penalty," Unsworth wrote.
Beyond citing the immediate laws he believed WTP broke, Unsworth painted a picture of a cabal of conservative candidates and Bozeman and Livingston political operatives who orchestrated attacks on both Republicans and Democrats across the state in the 2008 election year.
Among his findings:
== WTP employee and Bozeman resident Jennifer Paul was named treasurer of the "Mothers Against Child Predators" PAC, which sent out mailers calling Reps. Bruce Malcolm, R-Emigrant, and John Ward, R-Helena, "soft on crime" and associated them with serial killers. CEE also spent money against Malcolm and Ward in the primary election, which they both lost.
== A Livingston man named Christian LeFer enlisted a Montana State University student named Brian Witt to put his name down as CEE's treasurer. According to Witt, LeFer told him he would not have to do any work. Indeed, Witt told an investigator with the office of political practices that he never handled any money for CEE and did not have a key to the post office box listed as the PAC's address.
== LeFer and his wife operated Direct Mail and Communications. At least nine candidates paid the company for campaign printing during their 2008 races. Four of those candidates' opponents that year were subject to attack ads from WTP and CEE. Two other candidates' opponents were attacked by Mothers Against Child Predators. Those connections raised the concern that the candidates were colluding with political committees, a violation of law, Unsworth noted. However, he stopped short of making that charge.
Amongst the most serious charges made in the document was that a mailing list of prospective WTP donors included foreign corporations, though the ruling did not list those corporations.
In an interview Tuesday, WTP executive director Donny Ferguson said his group did not tell people who to vote for but rather "educated" voters. He said that shielded WTP from election laws.
In his ruling, Unsworth disagreed.
Ferguson also called the charge of soliciting foreign contributions a complete lie."
Ferguson did not return a phone call Thursday afternoon.
WTP recently won a court case that struck down a nearly 100-year-old ban on corporate spending in Montana elections. WTP argued, and a state district judge agreed, that the law violated corporations' right to free speech.
Daniel Person can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2665.