HELENA - A Montana group that financed three conservative ballot measures in 2006 has settled a long-running dispute with the state's chief campaign cop, agreeing to disclose the source of $1.2 million used to support the measures.

Montanans in Action, based in Winifred, agreed last Friday to settle a lawsuit filed by Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth, who said it violated Montana laws requiring disclosure of donors behind political spending.

Unsworth on Wednesday called the settlement "a ringing endorsement of disclosure," and said Montanans have made it clear through their laws that they want to know who's behind political spending.

In documents filed with the settlement, Montanans in Action revealed that nearly all the money it used to support the ballot measures came from groups that Unsworth said are associated with New York real estate developer Howard Rich - a prominent supporter of conservative, Libertarian causes.

Unsworth began investigating the group in 2006, in response to a complaint by Helena lawyer Jonathan Motl. Unsworth ruled in 2009 that Montanans in Action had violated disclosure laws and filed suit two months later to enforce his ruling.

He said Wednesday the group settled the case, including payment of a $75,000 penalty, because it knew it faced a difficult court battle over the disclosure issue.

But the group's chairman, Trevis Butcher, said Wednesday his group had done nothing wrong and agreed to settle only because it had tired of a lengthy legal battle.

When Unsworth decided to lower the penalty to $75,000, "all of the parties involved decided this was a complete waste of money to take this even further."

"If they'd had a single leg to stand on, they'd have (pursued us further) in court," he said. "They're bailing on this one."

Butcher also blasted Unsworth as a "political appointee with an agenda," and said the commissioner should be replaced with a bipartisan commission.

Unsworth was appointed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat; his term expires this year and he cannot be reappointed. Unsworth enforces a broad variety of campaign and ethics laws, and has ruled against Democrats, including Schweitzer, and Republicans in ethics cases.

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Motl, who filed the original complaint against Montanans in Action, said Montanans were "well-served by our commissioner and the attorney general to get this resolved" and force disclosure of the group's campaign donors.

He also called Montanans in Action a "cancer on the political system," because it blatantly violated disclosure laws and forced the state to use hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to enforce those laws.

"They had an obligation to come into this state and be open about where the money was coming from and how the money was being spent, and complying with the law on those sources," Motl said. "They shouldn't be in there disrespecting the political system and trying to manipulate it for their own benefit, and costing it money."

Butcher declined to respond to Motl's comments.

Montanans in Action, formed in 2006, routed $1.2 million to ballot committees that backed a trio of measured that sought to limit state spending, make it easier to recall judges and protect certain property rights.

The money helped pay for signature-gathering efforts to qualify the measures for the 2006 ballot. But the measures were later removed from the ballot by a state district judge who found that "pervasive fraud" occurred during the signature-gathering process.

Montanans in Action had refused to disclose its financial supporters, saying it was a "social-welfare" group under federal law and not a political committee.

As part of the settlement, the group filed a detailed list of its donors during the 2006 campaign season. It reported receiving $909,000 from America at its Best, a group with a Kalispell post office box; $185,000 from the New York-based Democracy Fund; $100,000 from Colorado at its Best; $25,000 from U.S. Term Limits; and $20,000 from Liberty Oil of Denver.

The website for America at its Best said the group exists to "help assist citizens in achieving their goals of making government smaller and open."

Unsworth said only one-fourth of 1 percent of the funding for the ballot measures, run through Montanans in Action, came from in-state sources. Most of the remainder came from groups associated with Rich, he said.

"Even though anonymous campaigning has spread like weeds, disclosure law still comes down on the side of voters and their right to know who's trying to influence their vote," he said. "The law, intended to thwart corruption in the electoral process, is as important now as it has ever been."

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at mike.dennison@lee.net.

 

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