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Consultant: Documents in state's possession stolen

HELENA (AP) — A consultant to a conservative group attacking Montana's campaign laws is seeking the return of documents he says were stolen and are now in the possession of the state commissioner of political practices.

The documents are featured in a "Frontline" documentary airing Tuesday and a story by "Frontline" and ProPublica that suggest the tax-exempt social welfare group American Tradition Partnership illegally coordinated with Republican candidates.

American Tradition Partnership consultant Christian LeFer, of Livingston, said the documents were in his car when it was stolen in Denver two years ago, Lee Newspapers State Bureau reported. He planned to file a court request for their return.

"If the documents are released to the news media or the public, their content will cause irreparable harm to LeFer's business, in that proprietary information about the workings of his business will be revealed," his attorney, Quentin Rhoades of Missoula, wrote to Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry.

Murry was not available for comment Tuesday. Commissioner of Political Practices Program Supervisor Mary Baker said Tuesday her office was no longer releasing the documents to the public.

She denied an Associated Press request to inspect the documents.

"It's tied up in litigation and there apparently is a little conflicting information as to whose records they are," Baker said. "They're potentially involved in a criminal case."

The documents have not been used in any investigation and have sat untouched for more than a year in the agency's basement, she said.

American Tradition Partnership led a successful lawsuit to overturn Montana's 100-year-old ban on corporate spending in elections, a decision that was before the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

The organization also is leading a separate lawsuit attempting to throw out the state's campaign contribution limits, which has led to turmoil in the governor's race over a disputed $500,000 donation to Republican candidate Rick Hill.

ATP also has sued the state over a previous finding by the commissioner's office that the organization engages in campaign advocacy and must disclose its donors and expenses.

ATP says it is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization that does not advocate for or against candidates, and, therefore, it doesn't have to reveal its financial backers.

The "Frontline" and ProPublica story said the documents included files on 23 conservative candidates in Montana state races, with surveys, mailers apparently paid for by the candidates, fliers and bank records.The documentary will be shown on Montana PBS at 8:30 p.m. today.

The story said the documents had been found in a Denver home reputed to be a "meth house." It is not immediately clear how they came into the possession of the commissioner of political practices.

ATP Executive Director Donald Ferguson denounced the "Frontline" report and said the group "always has and always will obey every applicable law."

 

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