HELENA (AP) — A judge said Thursday that he will sanction American Tradition Partnership — at the center of several legal battles over Montana's campaign laws — for failing to produce organizational records in a 2-year-old case where it is fighting allegations of illegal electioneering.
And in a bizarre twist, the state office holding high-profile documents that ATP opponents argue can prove wrongdoing by a consultant to the group, reported a Wednesday night break-in. Officials said nothing appeared to be stolen.
The events ensured that ATP remained at the center of high-profile developments in the campaign finance saga in Montana.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena said, after a Thursday afternoon hearing, that he will specify the sanctions against American Tradition Partnership after reviewing further written arguments from each side. The state wants to penalize ATP for failing to disclose its political activity, while the group argues disclosure would violate its constitutional rights.
The attorney general's office said that ATP was in "willful disobedience" of court orders to produce records as part of discovery in the case.
"I have never seen anyone stand in front of a judge and say his client's choice is not to obey that judge's orders, and furthermore to say they will continue to disobey the courts orders," said Assistant Attorney General Andy Huff.
The state said documents still not produced by the group as ordered by the judge include organizational records, a list of board members, bylaws, meeting minutes and some communications. The state argues that ATP is not really a nonprofit, social welfare organization as it claims — and says it is really a front group to allow anonymous money to flow into the elections process.
ATP attorney James Brown argues the court's order violates the group's constitutional speech and other rights. But he told Sherlock that ATP did not appeal prior orders to produce the records because it does not believe it would win in front of the Montana Supreme Court.
Brown opened Thursday's afternoon hearing on potential sanctions against his client by bringing up the break-in at political practices, which followed a protest in front of his office a day earlier from those opposed to ATP's undisclosed activities. Brown said the intrigue felt "like being in a John Grisham book."
The records are not part of the case before Sherlock, but are the focus of a separate legal challenge as ATP consultant Christian LeFer seeks to prevent further public disclosure. An Associated Press request to see the records has been rejected by Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry, citing investigations into potential violations of state law.
The documents were featured earlier this week in a "Frontline" documentary. The story said the documents had been found in a reputed Denver drug house.
Lefer's attorney, Quentin Rhoades, did not return a call seeking comment about the break-in and that ongoing legal challenge.
A Capitol security guard reported the break-in at 9:47 p.m. Wednesday, finding the door open and the basement light on where news reports had previously said the records were stored. Security had been heightened in the days leading to Tuesday's election, and the records had been previously moved.
Murry said he does not know whether somebody was trying to steal those documents.
"That's the question everybody is asking and, frankly, that was my concern. But that's speculative," Murry said.
ATP has successfully overturned Montana's 100-year-old ban on some corporate spending in elections. And it convinced federal courts earlier this month to suspend the state's campaign contribution limits, a decision reversed six days later as arguments continue in that case.
The conservative group is actively attacking Attorney General Steve Bullock this election season in a fake newspaper being mailed around the state.
That has led to turmoil in the governor's race over a $500,000 donation to Republican candidate Rick Hill, who is running against Bullock. A judge ordered earlier in the week that Hill cannot spend the donation because it may have been illegal.