HELENA – A federal judge said Friday that the state properly gave a federal grand jury documents dealing with a secretive conservative group.
The ruling comes in a case surrounding the disputed files connected to American Tradition Partnership.
ATP and a conservative consultant to whom the documents belonged to have been seeking their return, arguing that they were stolen in Denver in 2010 before someone sent them to the Montana commissioner of political practices.
State District Judge Nels Swandal sided with the group in December and ordered them placed in the lower court’s custody.
But U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy on Friday tossed out that state court order.
Molloy said the commissioner had no choice but to turn them over to a federal grand jury investigation when the grand jury asked for them.
The focus of the federal grand jury investigation is not known.
Molloy said the federal investigation trumps the state district court’s request to hold the documents. He said Christian Lefer, the ATP consultant, wrongly argues that Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry should not have given the papers to the grand jury.
“The argument undermines the rule of law and ignores the constitutional power and responsibility of the grand jury,” Molloy wrote. “Murry had no choice but to comply with the subpoena, and his actions are not grounds to compel him to abide with an order from the state court that has been mooted by the grand jury subpoena.”
The documents were featured in an October documentary by “Frontline” and a story by ProPublica suggesting the tax-exempt social welfare group coordinated with Republican candidates.
ATP has the been the focus of several legal battles in Montana.
It has successfully convinced federal courts to toss out some Montana campaign finance laws.
But ATP also has been sanctioned in a case in which it is charged with failing to comply with disclosure laws. And its efforts have prompted a bipartisan group of lawmakers to seek tougher rules for such groups.