HELENA — State officials said Thursday that a federal grand jury has subpoenaed disputed documents involving a secretive conservative group that critics argue has been illegally coordinating with candidates.
The disclosure was made by state officials responding to a Livingston judge's order requesting the American Tradition Partnership documents. The documents were featured in an October documentary by "Frontline" and a story by ProPublica suggesting that the tax-exempt social-welfare group coordinated with Republican candidates.
ATP has been seeking the return of the documents, saying they were stolen in Denver in 2010.
District Judge Nels Swandal issued an order Monday telling the state that he would take custody of the "Colorado" documents to make sure they are not lost, stolen or again disclosed to the public. The judge cited a potential pre-election break-in at the commissioner's office, along with that office's decision to at one time let reporters view the documents.
But the commissioner of political practices on Thursday told the state court that the documents — along with others — were turned over after a grand jury's subpoena that was received a day earlier.
"My office has complied with the subpoena, and the Colorado documents are in the possession of federal authorities," James Murry said in a Thursday affidavit.
Officials with the commissioner's office said Thursday that they have been instructed to not comment further on the case.
An assistant attorney general representing the commissioner's office told Swandal's court that the subpoena request came from the United States District Court for the District of Montana.
The U.S. Attorney's office did not return a call seeking comment.
American Tradition Partnership released a statement earlier in the day lauding Swandal for ordering the state to hand over the documents. It did not address the more recent revelation that federal officials had already seized the documents.
The lawsuit seeking return of the documents was originally filed by Christian LeFer, a Livingston consultant who has done work for ATP.
A separate batch of documents that were released by a different state court last month showed the group's bank records were intermingled with those of a printing business run by LeFer's wife.
A state judge last month sanctioned the group for failing to provide more information on its activities, requested as part of a case where state authorities argue it has been illegally involved in election efforts without disclosing donations and expenditures.
Two Republican lawmakers subsequently filed complaints with the commissioner of political practices alleging that bank and other records released show American Tradition Partnership illegally coordinated with their primary election opponents. Critics have called ATP a "dark money" group that intentionally hides electioneering efforts.
American Tradition Partnership has previously denounced those claims as "false and meritless."
On Thursday, the group claimed that Murry was in the wrong for previously failing to return the documents that are now the subject of a federal grand jury subpoena.
"ATP always obeys every letter of every applicable law," said Executive Director Donny Ferguson, executive director of his group based in the Washington D.C. area. "Everything we do is not just legal but in pursuit of accountable government."
ATP has also gained notoriety for successfully mounting legal attacks on Montana election laws, including one lawsuit that led to the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision to strike down the 1912 law banning direct expenditures by corporations for or against candidates.