HELENA — The Montana 2012 election season has been dominated by battles over money that promise to continue long after Election Day — thanks largely to the anonymous backers of a Virginia-based nonprofit that Gov. Brian Schweitzer is now calling a "criminal organization."
Less than a week before the election, Schweitzer rallied a crowd against anonymous political money and American Tradition Partnership. The governor said the group is engaged in using "dirty, secret, corporate and foreign" money in a conspiracy to influence Montana elections.
"I'd be surprised if this doesn't end with some people in jail," Schweitzer told enthusiastic backers of an initiative on the ballot that opposes constitutional rights for corporations and declares their money is not protected speech.
The brouhaha served as a capper to an election year that has been as much about the influence of money as it was about candidates.
The state's race for governor ended in a court battle over a previously unheard of $500,000 donation, federal courts tossed state laws governing money in politics in an ongoing tussle balancing free speech vs. political corruption, and mailboxes were flooded with exaggerated attack fliers. Money flooded into the race between U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Denny Rehberg in an endless barrage of attack advertisements that no voter was able to miss.
Perhaps no group embodied the fight over campaign finance spending and laws than the secretive American Tradition Partnership. Originally launched in 2008 as Western Tradition Partnership by two Bozeman Republicans, it has since moved to the Washington D.C-area and fought in court for two years to avoid requirements that it disclose its political spending and fundraising.
On Thursday, a district judge said he will sanction the group for failing to provide court-ordered records that state attorneys argue will show ATP is masquerading as a nonprofit to avoid disclosure and election laws.
Also, that same day, police reported a break-in at the state office where campaign finance records are kept, including documents an ATP consultant alleges the state is wrongly holding — documents ATP foes argue will show the group is illegally coordinating its activity directly with candidates.
The group has convinced the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year to throw out Montana's century-old restrictions on some corporate political spending. Another ongoing lawsuit involving the group prompted a federal judge to toss the state's limits on campaign contributions just a month before the election — a decision suspended six days later by an appeals court.
During that time Rick Hill, the Republican candidate for governor, took a $500,000 donation.
Democrat Steve Bullock sued to block the donation as illegal, arguing it far exceeds the reinstated cumulative donation cap of $22,600 from political parties. The argument dominated the final two weeks of the governor's race. A state judge blocked Hill from spending the money, saying it likely was an illegal donation.
ATP, an active mailer of campaign attack mailers in local legislative races, has turned its focus on Bullock — who as attorney general has fought ATP in court. The group attacked Bullock with online advertisements and a look-alike "newspaper" showing Bullock in a lineup with registered sex offenders. The group said 120,000 were being mailed, and said its aim as an "informational, educational and lobbying group" is to pressure candidates to change positions.
Bullock fought back, closing his campaign by linking Hill to ATP since the lawsuit paved the way for the contested donation and relentlessly hammering Hill over the money.
"If this race is about character, the Congressman is out of his league against Steve Bullock," said Bullock spokeswoman Kate Downen.
Republicans were upset as well by outside spending. The state GOP filed a federal complaint last week over a last-minute flier mailed statewide that attacked Rehberg as a "pork barrel" conservative, and endorsed Libertarian Dan Cox as the true conservative in the race. But Cox didn't pay for the ad — and the flier had no disclosure on it.
The GOP alleged a liberal-leaning group known as Montana Hunters and Angler was behind it, since it did air television ads with a similar message. The group denied the allegation. The group did send a similar mailer promoting Cox that did have ownership disclosure on it.
It was another example of the outside spending that has dominated the Montana Senate race. As much as two-thirds of the attack advertisements have been paid for by out-of-state groups, some who appear to have been launched for the sole purpose of swaying public opinion this election cycle.
Political Scientist David Parker said about $40 million, in total by all parties, will be spent in the race — roughly a 30 percent increase over Tester's narrow 2006 win over Conrad Burns. Still, for all that spending the race is ending the way it started: about tied.
Parker said complaints have always raged over money in politics. But he said the ability to use that money to reach into homes with technology is more pervasive.
And Parker said the ATP legal tangles and outrageous mailers — which opponents argue are being illegally coordinated with candidates — is really an eye-opener. He said the group's lawsuits seeking undisclosed, unlimited money are not helpful.
"American Tradition Partnership is engaged in vandalizing the public square," Parker said. "ATP seems to be a perfect poster boy for bad behavior."
The courts will still be sorting out the disputes over Montana campaign finance spending after Election Day.
A judge said he will announce sanctions against American Tradition Partnership for failing to produce documents in its fight against penalties from the Commissioner of Political Practices. The attorney general's office wants ATP's legal challenge dismissed so the penalties can be assessed.
ATP argues it is not involved in "electioneering," and that disclosure harms its constitutional rights to free speech.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is currently considering a decision from a federal court to throw out the state's contribution limits as unconstitutional, based on arguments from ATP and others that the limits are too low to allow effective campaigning.
And the Legislature could get involved next year.
Last week, Local ATP attorney James Brown of Helena confronted the protesters riled by Schweitzer. He advised them they should use their energy seeking new laws requiring disclosure. Brown called it "laughable" that he represents a criminal group.
"Your remedy is through the Legislature, it is not to harass people," Brown said. "If you have a problem with the way the system works, change it."