HELENA — In an eight-and-a-half minute YouTube video titled "Why does the Montana Family Foundation Exist?" a collection of people lay out the things that keep them up at night:
The sanctity of marriage under threat. Children at risk of growing up in homes without both biological parents. A lack of school choice and alternatives to public education.
Foundation president and CEO Jeff Laszloffy appears at the end, telling viewers “it’s time for us to rise up as a people” and join with the group. He lists three ways to help — volunteer, pray and commit financial resources.
“This is an expensive battle,” he said. “We’re not just here to play. We’re in this game to win, but to do that we need everyone’s help. We need your help.”
Those who have put dollars into that battle include the charitable trust run by Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for Montana’s empty U.S. House seat, and his wife Susan. Since at least 2004, the Gianforte Family Foundation has given nearly $900,000 to the foundation, in some years making up nearly half of the money the foundation brings in from gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees.
The Montana Family Foundation is actually an umbrella name for two groups — one also called the Montana Family Foundation and the other called the Montana Family Institute. Work is focused on four areas: life, marriage and family, religious freedom and school choice.
The Montana Family Foundation groups have a linked, two-prong approach. The Institute cultivates an interest in conservative issues and keeps the risks of a progressive agenda at the forefront of people's minds. The Foundation then taps into that primed voter pool by telling them who will save Montana from those fears. The Institute creates a sense of urgency and the Foundation offers a solution to it.
Put in IRS terms, the sub-Foundation is a 501(c)(4), sometimes called a social welfare organization, that can engage in some political activity, and has done so aggressively, if sporadically, according to records filed with the state’s campaign finance watchdog. The Institute is a 501(c)(3), which cannot spend money directly with campaigns or on electioneering activity.
To be clear, the Gianforte Family Foundation only gives to the Institute. Still, the portion they support can do things like produce a scorecard of how legislators vote on family issues and ranks candidates based on their stance on religious freedom, abortion and other issues of that nature, according to Montana Family Foundation communications director Bowen Greenwood. And even though the Gianforte-funded arm is banned from direct political communications, Susan Gianforte would have had input on the direction of the political segment when she served on the board of the overall organization until February 2014.
Neither the Institute or Foundation’s lists of donors is public, so it’s hard to say what percentage of the Institute’s money comes from the Gianforte trust, but both groups' available tax records show the contributions are significant.
In 2012, for example, the Gianforte trust’s grants made up 60 percent of the Institute’s money that came from gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees. Filings from 2010 to 2014 show Gianforte trust money making up 11 percent in 2010, 32 percent in 2011, 54 percent in 2013 and 29 percent in 2014.
That money helps fund the Institute's public education work in the religious community.
“We’re keeping them educated about what’s going on with the Legislature. We do a lot of civic education work with that community about elections that are coming up, how to vote, how to participate,” Greenwood said.
According to radio programs recorded by Laszloffy, who was traveling and not available for an interview for this story, the Legislature is something to monitor closely for danger.
In a broadcast a week after the end of the 2017 session, Laszloffy told listeners online and on 40 stations across the state: “Sleep well, Montana, you’re safe for another two years."
In a program the week before, Laszloffy discussed a bill called the Montana Locker Room Privacy Act. In the foundation's eyes, the failed legislation would have protected vulnerable young women from men seeking to enter locker rooms and bathrooms to take advantage of them. To those who defeated it, the bill was discriminatory against those who are transgender.
The bill was killed by “four misguided Republicans,” Laszloffy told listeners, illustrating the group’s comfort with singling out Republicans it feels are not conservative enough.
That Republican-on-Republican criticism in the name of creating a more conservative party has been the focus of the political segment of the group. Republican Representative Rob Cook, from Conrad, was a target of those efforts in 2014 and still has the fliers to prove it.
Cook, a self-identified “responsible Republican” who has crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats on some major legislation in the past several sessions and is respected among lawmakers as a fair negotiator, first came into the crosshairs of the foundation in 2011 after he voted against a bill to require a woman to have an ultrasound before an abortion. In 2013, he voted against a bill that would have required a school district to get written consent before teaching students sex ed.
“Hell, I’m not pro-abortion either but they had an ultrasound bill where you basically had to get raped by an ultrasound if you wanted to have an abortion,” Cook said. “It was a bunch of stuff like that.”
So it was no surprise when the fliers showed up in 2014 during his primary against Ann Morren.
The politically capable Foundation side spent an estimated $5,600 to send fliers showing Cook’s sinister-looking black-and-white mugshot next to a bright color photo of a child looking terrified.
“The flier basically claimed I was teaching sex ed to kindergartners,” Cook said. “They mailed some nasty fliers.”
In that primary, Greg and Susan Gianforte also each gave $170, the maximum allowed in 2014, to Morren.
In total, the Montana Family Foundation reported spending $52,350 in the 2014 primaries. An estimated 15 percent of their expenditures went to fliers opposing Republican Sen. Duane Ankney. In the previous session, Ankney was a vocal proponent of a bill that decriminalized homosexual sex and spoke personally about his gay daughter.
The group’s success in 2014 was tempered — just four of 10 of their candidates advanced. But two years prior, they saw major victories, spending $320,000 in the 2012 election. The bulk of that, about $243,000, went to support a successful ballot initiative to require parental consent for women under the age of 16 before an abortion. The rest went toward postcards aimed at either attacking less conservative candidates or supporting those that aligned with the group’s mission.
When asked last week why the Gianforte Charitable Trust has supported the Institute side of the operation, Gianforte said the group’s mission aligns with his views.
“I am a conservative. And I believe that conservative views in government lead to increased prosperity. Conservative views support lower taxes, less regulation, letting people keep the fruits of their labor and good government policy.”
Asked last fall about his trust's donations, Gianforte emphasized the money could not be used politically.
"Not one of these organizations can use a dime of what we’ve given them for political purposes This is money that’s been given for the purpose of helping the vulnerable, increasing educational opportunities, ministerial purposes. None of it is used for political purposes. If it was, they’d lose their nonprofit status and the (Gianforte) foundation would lose its nonprofit status. It’s not a line that gets crossed."
Campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon said last week Gianforte will defend First Amendment rights, which includes religious liberty.
"He'll protect anyone's right to believe and practice whatever they want. That's what's in the First Amendment of our Constitution. That's the very first freedom. He opposes any effort by the federal government to impose religious beliefs or prevent the ability of Montanans to practice their faith," Scanlon said. "You can't have religious freedom if you let the government impose any one set of religious beliefs."
Gianforte's "faith does compel him to serve and give back and show compassion for others," Scanlon said. "He's supported a wide variety of causes because he wants to help others."
Greenwood said by his assessment the Montana Family Foundation had not scaled up its political activity because of the involvement of the Gianfortes. He said activity is more dictated by changing finance laws and the need to comply with them.
Gianforte also said the trust tends to “support organizations we’re directly involved in. It’s the reason why we’ve been so supportive of Petra Academy and why we’ve gotten so involved in the manufacturing scholarships and the ACE Scholarships.”
The nexus of a private religious school Gianforte founded in Bozeman called Petra Academy and the Gianforte-funded ACE Scholarship program, which helped 520 students attend private and religious schools in its first year in 2013, shows a desire to privatize schools that concerns the president of Montana's largest labor union, MEA-MFT.
“Virtually every school privatization bill, whether it’s pay vouchers, charter schools or income tax credits, has been advocated for or lobbied for by the Montana Family Foundation,” said Eric Feaver, head of the union that includes public school employees.
On education issues, MFF has been very aggressive in their “pursuit of privatization” and helping get people elected who further that agenda, Feaver said.
Feaver and Laszloffy have squared off against each other in Helena for years, but early on the group focused more on issues involving advocating for a conservative Christian lifestyle, Feaver said.
"When Greg Gianforte started investing money, that was when they started ramping up their school choice agenda,” Feaver said.
Influencing the Legislature
Cook said that amount of money the Montana Family Foundation and Institute have access to gives the small group — the Institute lists 151 volunteers on its 2015 tax forms — an outsized influence that has led to a Legislature that is more conservative than the state as a whole.
“They’ve been very successful electing representatives who follow their viewpoint even though those same views are not indicative of Montana’s underlying demographic,” Cook said. “They’ve done an extraordinary job of overrunning the Legislature" with more conservative candidates.
Even though the Gianforte trust does not give to the political arm, the money it contributes can help rally potential candidates around conservative issues and create interest in running for seats.
“When you’re recruiting from a natural cadre of zealots it’s a lot easier,” Cook said.”They are disproportionately represented among the Montana Legislature, and it’s Gianforte’s money that’s responsible for it.”
It’s fairly simple how the Montana Family Foundation picks the candidates it supports, Greenwood said.
The Institute, as a part of its work, produces a scorecard of how legislators have voted on family-oriented issues. It uses that information to rank candidates on how they stand on issues like religious freedom and abortion.
“The foundation likes to do our best to help Christians and people of faith know how pro-family the candidate is. It was founded for the primary purpose to provide information to people of faith about how public policy is affecting them and also provide information to policy makers about the desires and hopes of people of faith,” Greenwood said.
The Montana Family Foundation formed in 2004, after the Montana Family Coalition dissolved. It joined the national movement to capture the previously untapped religious right and focus it into a political base, the religious right. And in Montana through the work of the Montana Family Foundation's educational arm, with funding from the Gianforte charitable trust, it has trained its base to view political campaigning as a significant part of their religious expression.
“Jeff and the crew of folks that started the Montana Family Foundation mirrored that same attempt to create an identity that was part of the religious right that was using this national framework to build political power,” said Rachel Carol Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network.
In 2016 the Montana Family Foundation didn’t report any spending on the election. That’s because of changes from the Disclose Act, a sweeping revision of Montana’s campaign finance laws that passed in 2015 and was opposed by the foundation.
Gianforte has called the law a “work in progress.” Democrats have tried to paint him as opposed to it because the lead attorney in a lawsuit challenging the Disclose Act was also his campaign attorney during the governor's race.
Under the act, nonprofits have to identify contributors who paid for any messages that mention a candidate or a race. “The Disclose Act resulted in a massive change in how we do business,” Greenwood said.