2 lawmakers accuse ATP of illegal coordination

2012-12-11T18:23:00Z 2013-07-24T16:55:06Z 2 lawmakers accuse ATP of illegal coordinationBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
December 11, 2012 6:23 pm  • 

HELENA —Two Republican legislators who won primary elections despite a barrage of third-party attacks have filed political-practices complaints against American Tradition Partnership and others.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, and Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber, argued that ATP illegally coordinated efforts with their primary election opponents.

They filed separate complaints received Dec. 3 by the state political practices commissioner, which investigates this kind of complaint.

Tutvedt, who survived a close primary challenge in June 2012, filed a complaint against his opponent, Rollan Roberts II, and American Tradition Partnership, Taxpayers for Liberty and the National Association for Gun Rights.

Esp filed two separate complaints arising from his 2010 primary in which he defeated Joel Boniek. One was against Direct Mail and Western Tradition Partnership, which now goes by American Tradition Partnership.

The other was against two Big Timber men who wrote a letter critical of him, and another resident who paid for it. Esp said they should have filed as a political committee and reported their donations and spending.

American Tradition Partnership, based in Washington, D.C., is the group that has mounted legal attacks on Montana election laws. The U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld its effort to strike down Montana’s 1912 law banning direct expenditures by corporations for or against candidates. ATP also has challenged Montana’s campaign donation limits and the state’s disclosure acts.

Questions have been raised about whether ATP has illegally coordinated with candidates.

Critics have called ATP a “dark money group,” a social welfare group that legally kept its donations confidential until ordered to release them by District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena.

“I have real problems with dark money,” Tutvedt said in an interview Tuesday. “I just think dark money is a problem in the election process (in) that you can have anonymous money (spent) that doesn’t have to tell the truth.”

Esp said, “It’s time for them to play fair if they’re going to play in politics. If the rest of us have to follow the rules, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have to follow the rules, too.”

In response, American Tradition Partnership Executive Director Donald Ferguson denounced Tutvedt’s and Esp’s claims as “false and meritless.”

“They are just the latest attempt by the Helena establishment to use smears and false accusations to intimidate people,” Ferguson said.

“This is further proof anyone who questions the Helena establishment is subject to abusive attacks on their character. ATP does not, never has and never will coordinate with candidates and nothing in the complaint shows coordination. Even our most rabid attackers admit no such proof exists.”

Tutvedt said he was attacked by 10 separate mailers, which, like his opponent’s direct mail, all came from the same mail order house in Loveland, Colo. These included mailers from ATP, Taxpayers for Liberty and National Association for Gun Rights.

In addition, a letter from Roberts’ wife, printed on pink stationery, was sent to voters, “per Christian LeFer,” a former ATP official, Tutvedt said. LeFer’s wife, Allison, who at one time signed most of ATP’s checks, owns a printing company that shared a post office box address with ATP, according to Pro Publica, an online news group.

Tutvedt said Roberts’ website and numerous mailings never indicated their source of funding.

Esp alleged that at a candidate forum in Big Timber in May 2010, a number of people associated with ATP and his opponent’s campaign manager “seemed to arrive together and hung out together throughout the event.”

He said they included Allison LeFer, whose Direct Mail company worked for Boniek’s campaign; a young woman working for Christian LeFer; Boniek’s campaign manager Ed Soady; an unidentified young man who was introduced to Esp by Allison LeFer and told he was working for a sportsmen’s rights group; and others.

ATP, the sportsmen’s group and others “were sending out mailings negative to my campaign," Esp said, alleging illegal coordination.

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