HELENA — The group behind the lawsuit that lifted Montana's century-old ban on corporate political money was accused Thursday of a number of campaign finance violations for illegally hiding work to influence elections.
The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices said in a lengthy ruling that over the past two years, Western Tradition Partnership violated campaign finance law numerous times by failing to disclose money spent on pieces attacking candidates for office.
WTP executive director Donald Ferguson issued a release late Thursday that said the group had little time to review the decision and couldn't comment on its merits, while simultaneously bashing the ruling as a politically motivated attack.
"In response, WTP intends to file an action against the commissioner of political practices in order to vindicate its First Amendment free speech rights," Ferguson said. "WTP believes that, with time, the legal issues will resolve themselves, and will be resolved in favor of WTP."
The ruling comes three days after Western Tradition Partnership won a state court battle allowing corporations to spend money influencing elections.
But the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices decided the Western Tradition Partnership is, and was, an organization that is required to disclose how it is spending money to influence elections. Penalties will be decided later.
Commissioner Dennis Unsworth said that however WTP is organized, its conduct influencing elections means it will need to file reports like a political committee.
Evidence included testimony from former employees who said the group was trying to influence elections, along with scores of political flyers that demonstrated direct political advocacy, the commissioner said.
"The evidence presented above clearly shows that WTP qualifies as a political committee under Montana law," Unsworth wrote.
He said WTP filed none of the required reports disclosing the amount of money raised and spent trying to influence the elections.
The secretive Western Tradition Partnership, once organized in Montana before operations were largely shifted to Colorado, now has an executive director based in the Washington, D.C., area.
The organization was involved in some nasty Republican legislative primaries earlier this year, backing the most favored conservatives with mixed results. In past general elections, the organization has attacked Democrats in close elections with Republicans.
The violations found by Unsworth in the initial report are numerous, including that WTP created a group called Coalition for Energy and the Environment to hide activity.
"The evidence is overwhelming that CEE was established by WTP as a sham organization to create the illusion that WTP was not directly involved in campaign activities directly opposing candidates for public office," Unsworth wrote. "The evidence shows that WTP's ultimate purpose in Montana in 2008 was not to discuss issues, but to directly influence candidate elections through surreptitious means."
The commissioner also points out that the group told potential donors that it would keep all the fundraising confidential, and told them they could give an unlimited amount of money — contrary to Montana campaign finance law.
The commissioner said more information needs to be gathered to before he can levy a fine or sanctions. He said he will be seeking interviews under oath with principals involved in the group.
Unsworth said the activity of the group runs counter to campaign finance law that requires candidates and political groups to disclose where their money comes from and how they spend it.
"In short, the people of Montana have determined that they have an absolute right to know who is behind efforts to influence elections, how much money is being spent on those efforts, and where the money comes from," Unsworth said. "WTP's failure to register as a political committee and publicly disclose the true source and disposition of funds it used to oppose candidates for the Montana Legislature frustrates the purpose of Montana's Campaign Finance and Practices Act raises, the specter of corruption of the electoral process and clearly justifies an action seeking a civil penalty."
He said WTP did not cooperate with the investigation.