HELENA — Lawyers representing the state of Montana say two political consultants are trying to run from their own lawsuit to avoid a legal setback in the ongoing saga surrounding mysterious political documents connected to the conservative group American Tradition Partnership.
The state attorney general's office has expressed confidence in its case and wants to force a ruling from a federal judge this week.
The consultants, Christian and Allison LeFer, meanwhile, want their suit dropped, arguing that their constitutional rights have been violated by the state of Montana and the political practices office.
Amid the legal maneuvering, it remains unclear what information the documents contain.
The papers were at the center of interest last election season when ATP critics said the lobbyist group, which has targeted moderate Republicans, violated campaign finance law by keeping its campaign spending and list of donors a secret. The ATP has countered, saying its closed-door practices are a constitutionally protected form of free speech.
The thousands of pages of records that ended up with the political practices office have been featured in a documentary by PBS' "Frontline" and in a story by ProPublica, a nonprofit organization for investigative journalism, suggesting the group improperly coordinated with Republican candidates.
The LeFers sued the commissioner of political practices and the state last fall, asking for the return of the documents. The LeFers said the paperwork was stolen during a 2010 car theft in Colorado before somehow ending up with the commissioner.
But even as the LeFers' lawsuit began, the state turned the documents over to a federal grand jury. A judge subsequently told the LeFers that investigation took precedence over their claims, and the papers remained in the state's possession.
The LeFers, in the course of several complaints and multiple court briefs, have modified their complaint to argue that their constitutional right to free political speech has been violated. They also say they were singled out for their Tea Party activism by former Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry, a former labor leader. The LeFers say Murry improperly released information that had been stolen from them.
After several lengthy arguments by all sides on the case, the LeFers recently asked U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy to let them just drop the case, a request the state and Murry are fighting.
"Dismissing the case now would allow the LeFers to create unnecessary and excessive delay. This is evident from the Lefers' motion when they state that, if they were to refile the case, 'it will be filed in a Montana state court, based on the same facts, circumstances, and evidence' that exist today," assistant attorney general Michael Black wrote.
The attorney general's office argues the LeFers have "tucked their tails and tried to run" and have been trying to shop the case to a favorable judge.
The state says the Lefers have never proven ownership of the documents, arguing that the consultants have said they were in possession of similar documents before a "secret agent," who has not testified, told them the records were stolen.
The state says the LeFers only speculate the documents are the same as those that were sent to the federal grand jury, which didn't state a reason for seeking the papers.
The state "merely received documents, not necessarily the same documents in a car that departed Montana in June 2010, which passed through many hands and were allegedly stolen by hands far removed from" the political practices commissioner, Black wrote.
Murry has asked the judge to issue summary judgment in his favor and force the LeFers to pay his attorney fees because he was personally included in a "frivolous" lawsuit that has included five separate complaints in different courts since last fall.
"The Lefers' serial filing of claims" against the commissioner of political practices "are part of an unreasonable and abusive litigation strategy," Murry's attorney wrote in the request.
Molloy is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday in Billings.