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Disclosure Matters
Like I Was Sayin...
Following District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock’s ruling last week that American Tradition Partnership must disclose its financial records, Attorney General Steve Bullock, who is also the governor elect, said this is “the beginning of the end of ATP’s lawless activities in the state of Montana.” That may be premature, but the judge’s decision is certainly a major blow to the conservative group.

Donald Ferguson, executive director of ATP, said his organization “will continue our fight to protect not only our First Amendment right to speak free from government interference and regulation, but also the right of others in Montana.”

But it’s hard to imagine that aTP will be able to operate like it did during the previous election season if it has to make public who is paying its bills. The group has maintained that it is a “grassroots lobbying organization dedicated to fighting environmental extremism and promoting responsible development.” When Montana’s political practices commissioner ruled two years ago that ATP was, in fact, a political committee that must disclose funding, the group sued the state.

Now that a judge has dismissed a large portion of that suit, Ferguson has reluctantly agreed to release more financial records. Part of the group’s records had already been released during a PBS “Frontline” documentary that aired in October and suggested that ATP had illegally coordinated with Republican candidates. An ATP consultant said those documents had been stolen in 2010 and the group maintains that it has always obeyed the law.

Bullock, a Democrat, was perhaps the target of more ATP mailers than any other candidate. But many Republicans have also been critical of the group. Kalispell Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, who narrowly won his primary, has filed a complaint against ATP accusing it of illegally coordinating with his primary opponent, Rollan Roberts II.

“I just think dark money is a problem in the election process (in) that you can have anonymous money (spent) that doesn’t have to tell the truth,” Tutvedt told Lee Newspapers.

ATP criticized Tutvedt for everything from accepting farm subsidies to voting for HB 198, which dealt with eminent domain for energy utilities, even though the senator had previously made a small donation to the group. During the next election, if the group is still active, it may make similar attacks against candidates but also will likely have to form a political committee that will reveal its donors. And that matters.

When attack advertisements have to acknowledge who spent the money to air a commercial or send out a flier, there is at least some level of accountability. If a group makes wild accusations against a candidate, Montanans have the right to know who’s paying to publicize them.

ATP has already filed lawsuits that successfully dismantled several of Montana’s campaign spending laws following the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts in elections. Now it is simply being asked to follow a few rules, of which there aren’t many anymore.

The Washington, D.C. group, which was originally formed as Western Tradition Partnership in Bozeman, has continued to call itself a social welfare nonprofit that does not have to reveal its donors.

What’s next for ATP is unclear, but it isn’t making any friends with judges. During the discovery for its scheduled trial in March, Sherlock said the group had refused to provide court-ordered information and remarked that, “Never in (my) 24 years on the bench has … a litigant flatly refused to comply with two discovery orders.”

In a statement, Ferguson said he was “disappointed” but “will honor” the judge’s latest rulings. That’s a good first step. Filing as a PAC would be a good second one.
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