State of Montana slaps conservative 'dark money' groups for campaign violations

2013-10-17T07:15:00Z 2014-10-03T14:27:45Z State of Montana slaps conservative 'dark money' groups for campaign violations

HELENA – In far-reaching decisions Wednesday, Montana’s top political cop said a prominent “dark money” group and similar groups appear to have broken state campaign laws when they coordinated mailers promoting or attacking candidates in a 2010 legislative primary election.

The rulings from Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl also said evidence shows former state Rep. Dan Kennedy, a Laurel Republican, accepted illegal contributions from the same groups and failed to properly report those donations.

Motl said the rulings send a message to Montana candidates and groups that would flout state disclosure laws, warning they must fully report spending and donations for campaign-related activity.

He advised candidates to “avoid such activity” in the 2014 campaign.

“Such avoidance can only be good for all Montanans, as it leads to better and fairer elections which, in turn, lead to better acceptance of election results and better governance for us all,” he wrote in his decision.

Candidates for state office in Montana run “with the expectation that they will not be bushwhacked by late, undisclosed and unreported expenditures,” Motl added.

The rulings – more than three years in the making – focus primarily on American Tradition Partnership, a pro-business, anti-environmentalist group that’s been a lightning rod for campaign finance controversy in Montana and elsewhere.

The nonprofit group, formed in 2008 as Western Tradition Partnership, has financed numerous mailers attacking or promoting candidates in Montana in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 elections – mailers often sent in the final days before the election.

The group usually supports Republicans, but also has gone after Republicans, in primary battles, that it deems too “liberal” or not sufficiently pro-development.

ATP has never reported any of its campaign-related spending in Montana, or its donors, claiming its material is merely educating voters on issues, rather than advocating for or against a candidate.

Critics refer to ATP and similar groups as purveyors of “dark money,” because they don’t disclose where they got their money or how it’s spent.


Wednesday’s rulings are in response to complaints filed in 2010 by Debra Bonogofsky, a Billings businesswoman who lost to Kennedy in the House District 57 Republican primary. She was a target of Western Tradition Partnership attack mailers in the waning days of the June 2010 campaign.

Bonogofsky said Wednesday she feels “vindicated” by Motl’s decisions, although it’s been 3 1/2 years since she lost the primary election.

“It’s a very good day,” she said. “I guess (ATP and Kennedy) maybe won the battle and I won the war.“

Neither Kennedy nor his attorney could be reached for comment Wednesday.

Bonogofsky alleged that WTP and several other secretive groups failed to properly report campaign spending or their donors and illegally coordinated with Kennedy on campaign spending and strategy.

Motl, whose rulings confirmed most of Bonogofsky’s allegations, said he expects to take the issues to state District Court, seeking civil penalties against Kennedy, ATP and the other groups.

His rulings establish “sufficient evidence” that ATP, Kennedy and the other groups broke the law, but the case must be proved in court, or settled, to result in penalties. The case must be offered first to the Lewis and Clark County attorney for possible prosecution, but Motl said he expects it will be sent back to him for further action.

Motl also said he’ll use the findings in the Bonogofsky decision to investigate whether ATP’s predecessor, Western Tradition Partnership, illegally coordinated with other Montana candidates in 2010 elections.

A lawyer for ATP also did not return messages seeking comment.

Wednesday’s ruling isn’t the first time ATP has found itself in the middle of a legal battle over campaign laws in Montana.

It successfully sued to invalidate Montana’s ban on corporate independent expenditures in campaigns, winning the case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012, but later lost a more expansive effort to strike down Montana campaign finance regulations.


In 2010, ATP – then known as Western Tradition Partnership – helped Kennedy in his primary race against Bonogofsky, sending out more than a dozen mailers either promoting Kennedy or attacking Bonogofsky.

Three other groups – the Assembly Action Fund, Montanan Citizens for Right to Work and the National Gun Owners Alliance – also sent last-minute mailers attacking Bonogofsky, who lost to Kennedy, 55 percent to 45 percent. Motl called Assembly Action Fund an “agent” of ATP.

Motl’s ruling on the complaints came after a lengthy investigation that included information from a trove of ATP documents that showed up at the Political Practices Office in Helena last year, delivered anonymously.

The documents, eventually subpoenaed by a federal grand jury, are now being held at FBI offices in Missoula, Motl said.

Motl ruled that ATP, the Assembly Action Fund and Montana Citizens for Right to Work coordinated with Kennedy on his campaign against Bonogofsky, and therefore Kennedy should have reported their expenditures as in-kind contributions to his campaign.

He also said the groups should have publicly reported their expenditures, because the mailers they sent attacking Bonogofsky or helping Kennedy are clearly campaign material.

Bonogofsky also filed a complaint against the National Gun Owners Alliance, which sent mailers to HD57 voters shortly before the 2010 primary election, attacking her for not answering a pro-gun survey.

Motl said there was no evidence that the Virginia-based group coordinated with Kennedy, but said it broke state law by failing to register with his office as a political committee and report its election expenses and contributions.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(16) Comments

  1. wes d
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    wes d - October 17, 2013 6:29 pm
    Well that was out of left field Dubs. Did I mention Bush?
  2. chaffincreek
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    chaffincreek - October 17, 2013 2:47 pm
    @jus wundrin: Bull pucky, archeology has shown that even Neanderthals took care of their own. Where does that put you? By the way it wouldn't hurt for you to actually study what Marxism really is. We are much closer to a plutocracy.
  3. jus wundrin
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    jus wundrin - October 17, 2013 9:07 am
    Why dont we hold the politicians accountable? And dont think the progressives are clean.

    Your draconian progressive wish will come true soon enough though.
  4. jus wundrin
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    jus wundrin - October 17, 2013 9:04 am
    Good comment Alan, but when do we hold those really responsible accountable: the politicians. Why cant they just say NO!?
  5. jus wundrin
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    jus wundrin - October 17, 2013 9:01 am
    Thats sweet chaffin, and news I already knew. But where is it? Why wasnt it implemented if it was the next best thing to sliced bread?

    Its still wrong......and marxist. When things go downhill what are you going to do? Fire your IRS bureaucrat? Write angry letters to the president? Once da gubment controls something its for life, its VERY rarely unchangeable, and you have NO more choice.

    Good luck slave.
  6. Roger
    Report Abuse
    Roger - October 17, 2013 7:39 am
    How come there are never any penalties for the "scientists" who have changed the climate record and changed the data to develop a falsified climate record? Michael Mann of Penn State committed fraud by falsifying the climate record, making it appear that the global temperature had been stable prior to the release of CO2 from fossil fuels. Not true, of course. Scientists who report the actual facts on climate change and refuse to go along with the leftist program have been harassed and seen their government grants dry up.

    As someone once said, Michael Mann is at Penn State, but he should be in the state pen.
  7. Roger
    Report Abuse
    Roger - October 17, 2013 7:29 am
    Of course when leftists lie and attack scientists and citizens who don't go along with alarmist global warming lies, that's all right. It isn't all as one-sided as you seem to believe, Muralist.
  8. Bones
    Report Abuse
    Bones - October 16, 2013 11:42 pm
    Stop thinking and vote against whatever you're most angry at.
  9. Bones
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    Bones - October 16, 2013 11:41 pm
    Oh, you're not digging up that old FACT that the Obamacare structure was originally a Republican idea are you...those bloody Marxists.
  10. The_Boneshackler
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    The_Boneshackler - October 16, 2013 7:44 pm
    Why are there never any criminal sanctions when the right-wing Fascists flaunt the law. I think that Carl Graham (ATP Leader) should be tried, convicted, and publicly executed in order to provide an example to the seditious traitors that wish to overthrow Democracy. Levying token civil fines is simply not working.
  11. chaffincreek
    Report Abuse
    chaffincreek - October 16, 2013 7:24 pm
    @jus wundrin: "...I would think that the last several Presidents would have been different, and obamascare would still be an idea at some obscure Chicago marxist organization." Well maybe you should do a little research.

    "During the early '90s debate, the individual mandate and Heritage plan generally even came to “[look] like a daring free-market reform.” More than just a dust-gathering think tank idea, the individual mandate won plaudits from some prominent Republican elected leaders. In late 1993, Senate Leader Bob Dole cosponsored legislation with John Chafee that would have required individuals to buy health insurance. More recently, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist praised individual mandates as conservative and welcome steps toward health reform."
  12. jus wundrin
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    jus wundrin - October 16, 2013 4:51 pm
    The "dark money" problem points to the sad state of the apathy and emotionalism that exists in todays American voter. Politicians and the dark money makers know it, as it works many times. Thats why we are treated to the endless inane political ads at every election cycle.

    If voters would just take the time to look at the issues and voting records of their candidates, I would think that the last several Presidents would have been different, and obamascare would still be an idea at some obscure Chicago marxist organization.

    If you cant take the time to do a little research, please stay home on election day.
  13. Alan Johnson
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    Alan Johnson - October 16, 2013 4:05 pm
    Dark money is bad news no matter who is spreading it around. I wish there were substantial civil and/ or criminal penalties to be a deterrent. But the nature of these ambushes is to do it so close to the election that it is effective, with no time for for effective remedy.
  14. Dubs
    Report Abuse
    Dubs - October 16, 2013 2:38 pm
    Hey, lets blame it on Bush.
  15. montanamuralist
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    montanamuralist - October 16, 2013 1:09 pm
    I received many of these mailings. One thing I noticed was that is was short on real facts and long on lies. One would not know that if they did not keep up with government and what has been happening in Washington. Exactly what groups like this count on. They can say anything and if it appears in print people will believe it. Facts are not a strong suit of the conservative right although they do have points to make about policy and should be heard. It is when they have groups like this who blantantly break the law and cheat to get their way, like Republicans have done with voting laws in many states and the manipulation of Congressional districts, that democracy is harmed. It is up to the voter to make themselves aware of the issues and make accurate voting decisions. Not respond to outside groups like these thugs.
  16. wes d
    Report Abuse
    wes d - October 16, 2013 1:05 pm
    Most of if not all of these groups are associated with the TEA party. You know, those "patriots" who vote with christian values. (Illegal practices and cheap shots) and want to save our shutting down the government causing the US to default and wrecking the world economy.
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