HELENA — The state is asking a judge to hit a secretive group known for challenging state campaign laws with a very large fine.
The request comes in the ongoing case involving allegations that American Tradition Partnership engaged in campaigns without disclosing spending. District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled last year that ATP acted as a political committee in the elections, and not as the educational organization it claimed.
The group, formally called Western Tradition Partnership, has garnered headlines for its part in lawsuits attacking Montana campaign-finance laws. In one, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that its 2010 Citizens United decision allowing corporate spending also nullified Montana's century-old ballot initiative dealing with the same topic.
But all along, the state has argued the group's directors and "puppet masters" were hiding behind a corporate nonprofit organizational status to unlawfully evade disclosure of election spending.
The commissioner of political practices said in a brief filed last week in the case that the group should be fined $321,365. The state argued the maximum penalty is needed because of "blatant and pervasive violations" along with an "obvious disdain" for state laws.
The state said its investigation into activities in the 2008 election found flyers against 10 Democratic candidates that were not properly attributed. It said the flyers clearly expressed defeat of the candidates, the sort of politicking that requires disclosure under state law.
The penalty covers violations of laws dealing with disclosure on political flyers of who paid for them, and requirements for filing and reporting expenditures as a political committee. The state says the penalty is the maximum allowed, determined as a function of the estimated amount illegally spent.
The state said its penalty only deals with flyers it found during an investigation concluded in 2010, and very likely does not include all the illegal activity engaged in by ATP. The state noted that nonprofit forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service show the group raised and spent more than $600,000 in 2008.
"Therefore, ATP's illegal unreported contributions and expenditures in Montana election contests likely exceeded the amount used by the commissioner as a basis for a civil penalty by many thousands of dollars," the state argued in the brief.
ATP has also been active in subsequent elections not covered in that original investigation. It generally attacks moderate Republicans during primary battles, and then Democrats in general elections.
The group has yet to respond in court to the penalty request. Earlier this year, the group told Sherlock that its operations were in flux and suggested that nothing may be left to collect penalties from.
In a hearing Wednesday on a separate issue in the case, the group's new attorney asked the judge to reduce attorney fees of $9,187 requested by the state.