A Montana judge has entered a $1.76 million judgement against two now-defunct corporations that were found to have made illegal contributions to more than a dozen Republican candidates seeking public office a decade ago.
District Judge James Reynolds issued the default judgment recently against Western Tradition Partnership, which later became American Tradition Partnership, and Direct Mail and Communications Inc. Neither organization defended itself in court.
Cases before the Commissioner of Political Practices and in state court determined that each of 15 candidates received nearly $20,000 in free or reduced-price campaign-related services. The candidates did not report the services as contributions to their campaigns, and the corporations were not legally allowed to make them.
Candidates received services such as election advice, advertising, mailings, website development and attack ads against their opponents from a series of entities, but the effort was overseen by the Western Tradition Partnership and Direct Mail, Reynolds said.
"These interactions were a coordinated effort to influence Montana's 2010 and 2012 election cycles," Reynolds wrote in his Sept. 17 ruling.
Under Montana's campaign finance laws at the time, the civil penalty for unlawful corporate campaign spending is three times the unlawful contribution. The illegal contributions totaled nearly $294,000, and three times that amount is nearly $882,000.
Reynolds levied an $882,000 penalty on the corporations for making the contributions and another $882,000 penalty for failing to report them. The organizations no longer exist.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan and agency attorney Jaime MacNaughton did not return messages seeking comment Friday.
American Tradition Partnership later successfully sued to overturn the Montana law that the organization violated — one that prohibited corporations from spending money to support or oppose candidates or political parties. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Montana's law was inconsistent with its 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case.
Citizens United allows corporations and unions to spend money on elections as long as they report the spending. The influence of dark money groups increased after the Citizens United decision because such nonprofit, social welfare groups aren't supposed to back or oppose candidates and aren't required to identify their donors.
Gov. Steve Bullock issued an executive order in 2018 requiring companies to report contributions to dark money groups if they want to bid on large state contracts. Under Bullock's order, companies submitting bids for contracts valued at more than $25,000 for services or $50,000 for goods must disclose two years' worth of political spending if their spending exceeds $2,500.
A federal judge upheld Bullock's executive order in August, arguing the Illinois Opportunity Project did not have standing to challenge the order because it did not prove any of its donors included a company that had or was seeking a state contract in Montana. Illinois Opportunity Project said it planned to send mailings to thousands of Montana voters urging candidates to overturn Bullock's executive order.