HELENA – The director of the besieged “dark money” political group that mounted a full-scale assault on Montana’s campaign-finance laws resigned Thursday – and state lawyers are asking a judge to rule that the group violated some of the laws it challenged.
If the judge rules against American Tradition Partnership, the state could attempt to fine the group for not following state law on disclosure of campaign spending.
Mike Black, an assistant attorney general defending the state against a lawsuit from ATP, said the state believes ATP is a front for political money that wants to illegally hide its identity and spending activity.
“We believe it was a sham from the beginning,” he said.
ATP, known previously as Western Tradition Partnership, has been fighting in court for two years against a state ruling that ATP is a political committee that must publicly report its campaign-related spending and financial donors.
Since 2008, ATP has financed mailers and other activity attacking various Montana candidates, but has not filed any reports on its spending or donors.
The nonprofit group, which bills itself as a “grassroots organization dedicated to fighting the radical environmentalist agenda,” says it is a nonprofit, educational group that informs voters and does not advocate for or against candidates – and therefore is not legally required to disclose or detail its donors and spending.
On Thursday, Donny Ferguson, executive director of ATP, said he has he has resigned and taken a job as spokesman for a new Texas congressman, Republican Steve Stockman.
Ferguson said while “illegal actions” of the state have caused “significant hardship” for ATP, it still enjoys “great grassroots support” and that its board will decide its future course.
Ferguson’s announcement comes three weeks after ATP suffered a major legal setback, when state District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena dismissed most of its lawsuit challenging the state ruling that ATP is a political committee.
Sherlock said he was dismissing the case because ATP had mostly ignored court orders to produce information on its spending and organization.
Sherlock then gave ATP 10 days to disclose information, requested by the state and the court, on its political and spending activities, before ruling whether ATP broke state laws.
Ferguson and ATP’s lawyer, James Brown, asked Sherlock to extend that deadline, saying it was impossible to collect and report that information “in the extremely short time period ordered by the court.”
Ferguson also said court orders late last year that led to the release of ATP bank records had “severely harmed” the group’s ability to raise money, because donors are concerned about “having their names publicly and widely distributed and having their information posted on blogs and published in newspapers.”
Sherlock has yet to rule on ATP’s request for more time to respond.
Two weeks ago, state officials also revealed that a federal grand jury had subpoenaed documents connected to ATP, that had been held by the state political practices office. U.S. Justice Department officials declined to comment on the subpoena.
In addition to asking for the ruling that ATP violated state law, the state plans to bill ATP for attorney fees in connection with its unsuccessful lawsuit against the state.
If the judge rules that ATP violated state law, the state commissioner of political practices also can seek fines against ATP for failing to comply with disclosure laws, state lawyers said.