A federal judge chastised the attorney for two political consultants in court Thursday for suggesting a state official was guilty of wrongdoing in releasing a trove of documents connected to the conservative group American Tradition Partnership.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said attorney Quentin Rhoades had presented no proof to back his allegations that former Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry "secretly" gave 15,000 pages of campaign-related documents and business records to the news media.
Rhoades had also implied Murry could have been motivated by his past involvement with the AFL-CIO labor union, a group Rhoades said was at odds with his clients' work on campaign finance issues.
But Molloy sternly cautioned the Missoula attorney against such allegations, saying at one point that Rhoades was "making stuff up."
"Be careful who you accuse of nefarious conduct if you don't have anything to support it," the judge said. "What evidence do you have that they secretly shared them with anybody?"
"It's almost as if you are arguing to the newspapers instead of arguing to the law," Molloy added.
Rhoades' clients, Christian and Allison LeFer, sued the state over the document release but now want the case dismissed so they can refile in state court. The couple has filed notice that they intend to seek $1 million in damages from the state over the release, Rhoades said.
Rhoades said after the hearing that he was trying to illustrate the "unfairness" of the circumstances regarding the document release. The LeFers had a right to privacy, he said, and since their names were among those in the documents, constitutional due process required notice, if not a hearing, before those documents could be released.
The documents were delivered to the Commissioner of Political Practices office after they were allegedly stolen from the LeFers in Colorado in 2010. Just before last November's election, they were featured in a documentary by "Frontline" and a story by ProPublica suggesting American Tradition Partnership, a tax-exempt social welfare group, may have unlawfully coordinated with Republican candidates.
The LeFers attended Thursday's hearing. Christian LeFer was ignored by Molloy when he raised his hand and asked to speak during the exchange between Rhoades and the judge over Murry's actions.
LeFer later declined comment when asked about his future plans in the political arena.
"All that matters to me is that this not be allowed to stand," he said, adding that could lead to a scenario in which "someone who's robbed can have their tax return put out to the media."
The documents have since been turned over to a federal grand jury investigation, details of which have not been revealed.
The state attorney general's office has said that in seeking to dismiss the case, the LeFers are shopping for a favorable judge.
Attorneys for Murry and the state oppose the move to dismiss and want a judgment that would allow them to collect legal fees.
Molloy did not immediately rule Thursday.
American Tradition Partnership has launched lawsuits that have successfully overturned Montana's 100-year-old ban on some corporate spending in elections, and that led to a temporary suspension during the fall of the state's campaign contribution limits.