HELENA - A pro-business group that attacks certain Montana legislative candidates with mailed material has broken state campaign law by not reporting its donors and spending, the state commissioner of political practices ruled Thursday.
In a long-awaited decision, Commissioner Dennis Unsworth also said the group, Western Tradition Partnership, should pay civil penalties and face further investigation.
"WTP's failure to register as a political committee and publicly disclose the true source and disposition of its funds ... raises the specter of corruption of the electoral process and clearly justifies an action seeking a civil penalty," he wrote in a 43-page decision.
Unsworth's decision said a two-year investigation of the group uncovered a 2010 PowerPoint presentation that said it planned to spend $537,000 on Montana elections this year.
Western Tradition Partnership, formed in 2008 and based in Denver, is perhaps the most prominent of several groups that recently have mailed printed fliers that attack a legislative candidate for his or her response - or lack of response - to issue surveys by from the group.
The groups maintain that their fliers, usually mailed shortly before elections, are not campaign material and therefore are not subject to Montana law requiring disclosure of who pays for campaign material.
Western Tradition Partnership describes itself as a "grassroots lobbying organization dedicated to fighting environmental extremism and promoting responsible development and management of land, water and natural resources."
Western Tradition Partnership and similar groups have primarily targeted Democrats or, in some cases, Republicans described as not sufficiently conservative.
Unsworth said Thursday his office may file suit against the group in state District Court or seek a settlement.
"Part of any settlement offer is going to be full disclosure," he said. "Where is the money coming from? Where is it being spent?"
Unsworth's ruling said evidence shows Western Tradition Partnership had been involved in 19 Montana legislative races in 2008. He also noted that recent tax documents filed by the group show it had a budget of $660,000 in 2008.
Don Ferguson, executive director of Western Tradition Partnership, said late Thursday that he couldn't comment on the merits of the decision because the group hasn't had time to review it.
However, Ferguson said the group "has always obeyed all applicable campaign finance laws and regulations.
He also said the group plans to file an action against Unsworth "to vindicate its First Amendment free speech rights," but didn't specify the nature of such an action.
On Wednesday, in a separate case, Western Tradition Partnership and other parties won a court ruling that threw out Montana's ban on corporate spending on independent political ads.
Benjamin Graybill, the Great Falls lawyer who filed the 2008 complaint that led to Unsworth's decision Thursday, said Thursday he's pleased with the decision. Unsworth properly found that Western Tradition is a political committee and must disclose its donors and spending, Graybill said.
"Western Tradition Partnership and the folks who operate it need to be examined under oath, to determine what they did," he said. "I'd like to make sure that folks who are involved in the political process in Montana are not in the shadows."
Graybill also is a board member of Montana Conservation Voters, a political environmental group that also was mentioned negatively in some of the fliers linked to Western Tradition Partnership.
Western Tradition Partnership is registered as a nonprofit group commonly known as a 501(c)(4) or "social welfare" organization. Such groups can lobby for legislation, but are not supposed to campaign for or against candidates for public office. They also don't have to divulge their specific spending or financial supporters.
Unsworth, however, said in his ruling that Western Tradition Partnership's printed fliers are clearly "express advocacy" against candidates, and that Montana law requires disclosure of that spending and who's funding it.
His Thursday ruling focused on the group's alleged funding of fliers in several Montana 2008 legislative races, where Democratic candidates were attacked as trying to "trick" voters, labeled as allies of "radical environmentalist groups," or assailed for failing to sign a "no new taxes" pledge or voting to raise taxes and fees.
The fliers were identified as coming from the Coalition for Energy and the Environment, which sometimes was labeled as "a project of Western Tradition Partnership" with a Bozeman post office box as an address.
Unsworth concluded that Western Tradition Partnership and CEE are closely related and that the former group was "heavily involved" in creating and mailing the fliers.
He said the investigation also obtained a copy of a 2010 PowerPoint presentation by Western Tradition Partnership that sought donors and projected spending of $537,000 on targeted elections in Montana.
The presentation to Montana donors said "there's no limit to how much you can give" and said if you contribute, "no politician, no bureaucrat and no radical environmentalist will ever know you helped make this program possible."
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.