HELENA — Bank records show a conservative group took payment from a Republican legislative candidate at about the time it sent out independent mailers attacking his opponent, which opponents say illustrates how the advocacy group illegally coordinates its efforts with candidates.
The Western Tradition Partnership bank records show Dan Kennedy's 2010 winning campaign for a state House seat wrote the group a check for $557.50 after it had filled mailboxes with attacks against primary opponent Debra Bonogofsky of Billings.
The bank records were released under court order Friday to PBS' "Frontline," which published them.
The state attorney general's office argues that American Tradition Partnership — the new name for WTP — wrongly hides behind its nonprofit status to funnel money into Montana elections while hiding its donors and spending.
Bonogofsky said the check provides hard evidence that Kennedy and WTP were illegally coordinating their campaigns. Bonogofsky has pending complaints on other issues with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices against Kennedy, WTP and other groups she says could be connected.
Bonogofsky alleges that Kennedy stole an unfair election with attack mailers sent with anonymous money from WTP.
"I am just so happy that it is coming out," said Bonogofsky, who owns and runs a Billings tire store. "Whether it makes a difference, I don't know. These guys just like to thumb their nose at everyone."
Kennedy did not return a call seeking comment.
Bonogofsky was hit again this year with attack mailers from the conservative group in another losing primary bid for the House seat, this time won by Sarah Laszloffy after Kennedy stepped aside at the last minute during candidate filing.
American Tradition Partnership is based in Virginia. Its executive director on Monday denied that the check shows coordination, and suggested it was an unconnected donation.
"Dan Kennedy may have donated to ATP, but he certainly did not do so at our directions and never received anything in exchange," Donny Ferguson said.
Montana laws require that an independent committee "is not controlled either directly or indirectly by a candidate or candidate's committee" and "does not act jointly with a candidate or candidate's committee in conjunction with the making of expenditures or accepting contributions."
Last week, Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena said he will issue sanctions against ATP for failing to provide other court-ordered information in a lawsuit it field, challenging a two-year-old finding from the Commissioner of Political Practices that it is illegally engaging in elections without filing financial reports.
The group, organized as a social welfare advocacy group, argues the requests for financial filings violate its constitutional rights.
ATP filed another lawsuit Monday asking a federal judge to countermand Sherlock's Friday order to release the bank records and to prevent the release of any more of its records. The documents in question include bank account activity, copies of checks to vendors and consultants and copies of checks from donors from 2008 through 2010.
In addition to its mailers attacking candidates, ATP has gained notoriety for backing lawsuits that have successfully overturned Montana's 100-year-old ban on some corporate spending in elections, and led to a suspension earlier this month of the state's campaign contribution limits.
The group commonly attacks Democrats in the general election. Most recently, it mailed a fake newspaper to Montana voters featuring Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock in a lineup of sex offenders. Bullock is running for governor.
The group also has upset plenty of Republicans by going after perceived moderates in that party during the primaries.
State Rep. Rob Cook, R- Conrad, said the group is taking down Main Street Republicans even as it claims to be pro-business.
"It has long been suspected that ATP colluded with selected candidates in Republican primaries," said Cook. "Not only have they presented a false face to the public, they have also preyed on their own donors. ATP has a history of taking money generated by business activities and supporting candidates who, when elected, oppose business."