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.