While most of the attention in this fall’s election is on the U.S. Senate race or the battle for the governorship, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit has pumped at least $4.6 million into the campaign to legalize marijuana in Montana.
That’s 70% of the total money funding the effort. Opponents of legalization cried foul this month, filing a complaint with Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP). They demand that the nonprofit, the North Fund, disclose its donors.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Steve Zabawa, head of anti-legalization group Wrong For Montana. “We just want to know who the wizard is behind the curtain.”
The North Fund is registered in the nation’s capital and says it is a “social good” organization. Under IRS rules it would be considered a 501©4, and therefore its donors may remain hidden. Other groups like this include well-known organizations like the League of Women Voters, but also politically active groups known as “dark money” organizations.
The North Fund initially registered as an “incidental committee” in Montana, meaning the primary purpose of that group must be commonly known. So, if a company like the Altria Group, one of the world’s largest tobacco producers, supported a Montana ballot initiative, it wouldn’t have to disclose donors. With a simple Google search, voters would understand Altria’s purpose and motives behind donating.
“The way I look at it, if the COPP has a difficult time finding what a committee is about, then chances are that Montana citizens are going to have that same issue,” said Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan. “And it’s my job to ensure there’s transparency for Montana.”
“Those types of organizations whose primary purpose is something other than getting involved in elections, those organizations have to show my office and the people of Montana what that purpose is,” he continued. “We have to have a good understanding of where the money is coming from.”
Search results show the organization has supported issues from medicaid expansion in Missouri to D.C. statehood, but North Fund doesn’t have a website or easily traceable public officers.
Naomi Seligman, spokesperson for North Fund, said she was unable to comment on any specifics of the complaint or the North Fund’s appeal, but did say her organization supports a variety of issues in various states.
“We support New Approach Montana’s efforts to pass both CI-118 and I-190 because together they deliver clear benefits to Montanans,” she said in a statement. “North Fund’s work spans a number of states and covers critical issues, including justice reform, civic education and quality and affordable healthcare.”
But the group is not supporting other legalization efforts in South Dakota, Arizona or New Jersey this fall. She also confirmed it’s the only Montana issue the group is supporting.
According to its filing with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the North Fund also operates under other names including, Opportunity Wisconsin, 51 for 51, Accountable Tech, Voting Rights Lab Action, Just Democracy and the Count Every Vote Project.
Several of these groups have clear national progressive goals, including highlighting how the president’s economic policies have hurt farms and other small businesses in Wisconsin, a critical presidential battleground, as well as groups fighting to protect ballot access and an organization pushing social media companies to crack down on fake accounts and misleading information.
The group listed an address in its filing as a suite in Northwest D.C. The address is managed by a group called Carr Workplaces, a co-work space. When called, the Carr receptionist did not find the North Fund on the company registry, but the company does offer as one of its services so-called “virtual business addresses” that allow an organization to operate from an apparent street address without a formal office space. The service starts at $80 a month.
But its carefully constructed operation may be in trouble as it fights a push in Montana to disclose more information. Commissioner Mangan already reclassified it as an “independent committee,” which would need to disclose its donors. Mangan initially gave the North Fund until Sept. 30 to disclose its donors, but the organization appealed the move. Now, in light of Wrong For Montana filing an official complaint, North Fund must convince Montana that it should be relisted as an incidental group.
Mangan said the timeline for this process is unclear, and the investigation could continue after the election is over.
According to its filings, the nonprofit has five public officers, Melanie Beller, a one-time aide to former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid; Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein; lawyer Saurabh Gupta; Democratic grassroots organizer Cristina Uribe; and Carolyn Klamp, the founder and president of Klamp & Associates, a legal firm that represents nonprofits.
Despite efforts to contact all of the listed officers, no one responded to requests for comment.
Pepper Petersen, founder of New Approach Montana, said he was grateful for the North Fund’s donations. He declined to comment further on the complaint.
“The North Fund is a donor to our effort and we’re grateful for its support,” Petersen said. “Our campaign is focused on the benefits of voting yes on CI-118 and yes on I-190.”