HELENA — After four years spent dumping candidate attack ads on Montana elections and leading high-profile challenges to state campaign laws, a secretive conservative organization looks as if it may simply vanish.
American Tradition Partnership, which is registered as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) nonprofit social-welfare organization, will continue to exist as a legal entity, but, as for operations, "that's in flux," said the group's Montana attorney James Brown.
"The 501(c)(4) is not active at this point. I can say that with some clarity," Brown said.
It would be a whimper of an exit for a group that has influenced the upheaval of Montana election laws and spent years tying up state and federal courts with litigation.
The group, through Brown, argued vehemently in its lawsuits that its campaign spending was free speech, while fighting just as hard to keep its donors and spending a secret.
That secrecy ultimately may have been the group's undoing.
A state judge ruled this month that ATP acted as a political committee that must report its spending and donors and is not the purely educational organization that it claims to be.
And, in December, state officials revealed that a federal investigation into ATP is under way when they disclosed that a federal grand jury had subpoenaed stolen records that the organization was fighting to reclaim.
The documents were featured in an October documentary by "Frontline" and in a story by ProPublica suggesting the group coordinated with Republican candidates. Livingston consultant Christian LeFer, who has ties to ATP, says the documents were stolen in Denver in 2010.
ATP's only staff member, executive director Donny Ferguson, resigned this month to take a job as a staff member for newly elected U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas.
While discussing scheduling for one of the group's lawsuits with state attorneys on Tuesday, Brown hinted that his own status with ATP might change. He declined to say that he would no longer represent the group.
"At this point, I'm still their attorney," Brown said.
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry said he was not surprised that ATP may be fading away.
"Indications have been that ATP was virtually falling apart," Murry said. "There is no one left to mind the store. The significant thing is the corporate veil has been pierced by Judge Sherlock's order."
Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled this month that ATP acted as a political committee that violated state campaign-finance laws and used its corporate status to avoid compliance with those laws. The judge had expressed frustration over the group's repeated failure to turn over records and documents about the organization as part of the lawsuit it filed against the state.
Sherlock's ruling upheld a 2010 commissioner of political practices decision on a complaint over the group's mailing of attack ads denouncing candidates in the 2008 election. ATP — then called Western Tradition Partnership — challenged that decision in court.
Now, that two-year legal fight is nearly over. The other two plaintiffs plan to withdraw from the case, leaving only ATP, Brown said.
State attorney Michael Black said he plans to move forward with a request that Sherlock penalize the group.
But, if Sherlock decides to fine the organization, who from ATP is left to pay it?
"The question is, how do you collect?" Brown said.
ATP led the charge against a state ban on some corporate spending that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling its 2010 Citizens United decision extends to state elections.
In another case brought by ATP, a federal judge ruled two accountability campaign laws were unconstitutional. One required campaign attack ads to list the voting records on which the information in the ad is based, and the other was a ban on making knowingly false statements in such ads.
U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell also ruled that the state's campaign contribution limits are unconstitutional, a decision that may have influenced the outcome of the 2012 governor's election.
In the six-day window between Lovell's decision and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstating those limits, Republican candidate Rick Hill accepted a $500,000 donation from the state GOP.
That donation became a major focal point in the final weeks of the campaign, ending with Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock winning by a slim margin.
The case challenging campaign contribution limits is pending before the 9th Circuit. Brown said there are many other plaintiffs, so the case can continue even if ATP is no longer involved.
ATP has a separate arm registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Brown said, which is different from a 501(c)(4). A 501(c)(3), which is meant for religious, charitable or educational organizations, can't be involved in campaign activities, can't support candidates and is limited in political lobbying.