HELENA – The conservative “dark money” political group fighting state efforts to force disclosure of its finances lost another key court decision Friday, as a state judge ruled that it violated multiple state campaign-finance and election laws.
District Judge Jeff Sherlock of Helena, citing American Tradition Partnership’s continued failure to produce records requested by the state and the court, adopted the state’s proposed findings that ATP acted as political committee in 2008 and therefore must report its spending and donors.
Sherlock ruled that members and officers of ATP used its corporate, nonprofit status “as a subterfuge to avoid compliance with state disclosure and disclaimer laws during the 2008 Montana election cycle.”
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry, whose office has been investigating ATP over several years, said Friday he’ll likely seek financial penalties against ATP for its violations.
State Assistant Attorney General Mike Black, who has defended the state against ATP’s lawsuit to overturn earlier decisions that it should disclose its spending and donors, said Friday’s ruling “shows no person or entity is above the law.”
“(ATP’s) defiance of Montana law and District Court orders led to an entry of findings which are consistent with our investigation,” Black said.
James Brown, the attorney for ATP, said he’ll be talking to the group’s board of directors this weekend about whether to appeal the ruling or settle the case.
However, he said his client has lost the case on a “procedural dispute” that sets “an extremely dangerous precedent” for anyone or group that wants to fight state efforts to regulate and force disclosure of those behind political speech, even if that speech has a constitutional right to protection.
“In light of this order, if you’re going to challenge the state’s ability to regulate you, you do not want to be the one who files suit, because all of the materials that you want to keep private become public, just because you filed suit,” Brown said. “It is going to discourage people from filing suit to vindicate their constitutional rights.”
ATP, formerly known as Western Tradition Partnership, sued the state two years ago to challenge a state order that ATP is a political committee that must publicly report its campaign-related spending and financial donors.
Since 2008, ATP has been financing mailers and other activity attacking Montana candidates, but has not filed any reports on its spending or donors.
The nonprofit group that bills itself as a “grassroots organization dedicated to fighting the radical environmentalist agenda” maintained it is a nonprofit, educational group that informs voters and does not advocate for or against candidates – and therefore is not legally required to disclose or detail its donors and spending.
ATP is one of many so-called “dark money” groups that have become active in recent years. They are nonprofit groups that say they’re merely educating voters, and not advocating for or against candidates, and therefore don’t have to report their spending or donors.
However, in October 2010, then-Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth ruled that ATP’s activity was a direct effort to influence elections, and therefore was subject to state laws requiring it to report its spending and donors.
As the ATP’s lawsuit challenging Unsworth’s order proceeded, the state asked ATP to provide numerous records on its spending, donors and corporate records, as part of the discovery process before the trial.
ATP refused to provide many of the documents. Three weeks ago, Sherlock finally ruled that because of that refusal, he was dismissing most of the group’s case.
Sherlock then gave ATP 10 days to produce further records. ATP officials and Brown said they couldn’t gather the extensive records in just 10 days and asked for more time.
On Friday, Sherlock rejected that request.
He said that in most cases, he would grant more time, but that ATP had waited until the 10th and final day to file its request and that the requested information had been ordered by the court to be produced many months earlier.
Also this week, ATP’s executive director, Donny Ferguson, announced he has resigned to take a job with a Texas congressman, and said he was the group’s only staffer.
Murry said Friday his office is continuing to conduct additional investigations of ATP, in response to complaints that the group has illegally coordinated its efforts with Montana candidates.