HELENA – The conservative political group leading the attack on Montana’s campaign laws found itself in the news again Monday – including a dispute over allegedly stolen documents linked to the group and held by a state office that enforces those laws.
The documents, acquired by the Montana commissioner of political practices two years ago, are the basis of a “Frontline” documentary about American Tradition Partnership airing nationally Tuesday night on public TV stations.
The documentary and a news story published Monday by “Frontline” and ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism group, examine ATP’s spending on campaign-related material in Montana political races, and suggest the group has illegally coordinated its efforts with Republican candidates.
ATP executive director Donald Ferguson on Monday denounced the “bizarre and false claims” made by the story, and said the group “always has and always will obey every applicable law.”
Also Monday, Christian LeFer of Livingston, a consultant to ATP, said the documents were his, and were in his car when it was stolen in Denver two years ago.
LeFer, through his attorney, demanded that the state return the documents.
“If the documents are released to the news media or the public, their content will cause irreparable harm to LeFer’s business, in that proprietary information about the workings of his business will be revealed,” his attorney, Quentin Rhoades of Missoula, wrote to Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry.
Murry and Rhoades said the state agreed Monday to hold the documents and not show them to the public or media, while Rhoades filed a formal request in court, seeking their return.
The “Frontline” documentary and the stolen documents are the latest twists in the fortunes of ATP, a group that bills itself as a “grassroots organization dedicated to fighting the radical environmentalist agenda.”
Since 2008, ATP and its predecessor, Western Tradition Partnership, have been financing and mailing material attacking Montana candidates it says are opposed to its pro-development agenda.
The state ruled in October 2010 that ATP is engaging in campaign advocacy, and therefore must report its expenses and donors.
ATP has refused to do so, and sued the state to overturn that decision. The group also has filed other lawsuits, along with co-defendants that have included Republican Party groups, challenging various Montana campaign laws.
ATP maintains it is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization that does not advocate for or against candidates, and therefore doesn’t have to reveal its financial backers.
ATP successfully overturned Montana’s 100-year-old ban on corporate spending in elections, and is part of the lawsuit challenging Montana’s campaign contribution limits – a lawsuit that led to a disputed $500,000 contribution to Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill earlier this month.
Murry said Monday his office obtained boxes containing the disputed documents more than two years ago, sent by a Democratic Party official in Colorado. Reporters for “Frontline” and ProPublica viewed the documents.
The “Frontline” and ProPublica story said the documents included campaign material that had been marked as paid for by candidates, mailers from 2008 and 2010 involving Montana races, and bank statements by groups possibly related to ATP.
The story also said the documents had been found originally in a “meth house” in Colorado.
LeFer’s attorney said Monday that LeFer’s wife, Allison, had driven with the documents to Colorado in June 2010 to give them to LeFer’s attorneys, to be “reviewed, scanned and archived.”
The car containing the documents was stolen from a parking lot in Denver and turned up 10 days later, stripped of its stereo, ski rack and other contents, Rhoades said.
Rhoades said the documents, if released, could harm LeFer’s “fundraising credibility,” because donors to the group expect privacy. He also said they contain “sensitive proprietary information about LeFer’s relationships and strategies, which, if published, would damage LeFer’s clients.”
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.