A secretive group airing election ads featuring state Attorney General Tim Fox has been violating Montana campaign laws, the state’s political practices commissioner has found.
Ads by American Prosperity Group began airing on Spectrum cable television in late March. There is still no record of a group by that name either with state or federal elections regulators. That lack of information puts APG in violation of Montana campaign laws intended to prevent “dark money” spending in state politics, which is to say money spent by anonymous groups.
A new super PAC funded by Fox donors, payday lenders and America’s largest vaping company has also surfaced.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan said APG was the first dark money group of the 2020 election cycle.
“The is the first that someone put on our radar — at least through a complaint — that was participating in the election, in this case an electioneering communication that hadn’t filed with our office. There could be more out there,” Mangan said.
Helena resident Jeffrey Oestreicher spotted the ads on cable television, took a few screen shots and filed a complaint April 20. The ad features footage of Fox, one of three Republican candidates for governor. A narrator links work by Fox to the policies of President Donald Trump and then asks viewers to “Call Attorney General Tim Fox” to “tell him to keep standing with President Trump.”
Nine days after Oestreicher’s complaint, the Washington, D.C., law firm Dickinson Wright PLLC emailed Mangan, stating that it represented American Prosperity Group. The firm argued the ads were placed too early in the election cycle to be breaking state campaign law. Dickinson Wright PLLC told Mangan that because Montana’s Election Day was June 2 and the ads aired more than 60 days earlier, no campaign reporting was required.
However, Montanans began voting the first week of May, which means APG should have identified itself and revealed who was funding the group, Mangan ruled. The case has been submitted to Lewis and Clark County prosecutors.
Mangan said it was still unknown Monday who was behind APG and its funding. It wasn’t easy at first glance to distinguish between APG and entities with similar names. A different group, super PAC Americans for Prosperity, has been a major outside group in state and federal elections during the past decade. The two groups are different. There is also a retirement and estate planning corporation known as American Prosperity Group, which appears to be no relation to the dark money group running ads in Montana.
Mangan is the state’s top political law enforcement officer, but he doesn't work for the state Department of Justice, which is overseen by Fox.
The newly surfaced pro-Fox super PAC, Montana Freedom Fund, shares several traits with the dark money organization American Prosperity Group. Montana Freedom Fund registered with Mangan’s office May 11, disclosing only a Belgrade street address and the name of its treasurer, Julie Dozier, a political consultant who has been treasurer for several super PACs, according to federal elections data.
The super PAC has aired election ads nearly identical to American Prosperity Group’s. Although Montana Freedom Fund has yet to disclose its finances to Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices, Lee Montana Newspapers found federal finance reports identifying the fund’s donors, as well as payments to APG’s legal counsel Dickinson Wright PLLC. APG and Montana Freedom Fund also use the same ad agency, Red Eagle Media Group.
Seven of MFF’s 12 donors are also donors to Fox’s campaign. Juul Labs, the electronic cigarette manufacturer, has donated $5,000 to Montana Freedom Fund. Additionally, there are three corporate donors to the super PAC that haven’t donated to Fox.
The super PAC isn’t Juul’s first interest in Montana politics. In October, a Lee Montana Newspaper report on spending by the vaping lobby revealed that Juul had written a $2,600 campaign check to Fox in October 2018. A Fox campaign spokesman said Fox never cashed the check. And, Juul subsequently corrected its federal campaign finance reports to show the 2018 donation wasn’t deposited by Fox.
The newspaper report on vaping was published shortly after a Montana teen died from a severe lung illness related to vaping, which had also sickened two other Montanans and killed 33 people nationwide. Gov. Steve Bullock has just issued a 120-day ban on vaping products.
The Montana Freedom Fund donation from Juul was more recent than the 2018 donation that Fox declined. MFF accepted its Juul donation July 24, 2019, according to federal election records.
The donations to MFF from payday lenders came from Plain Green LLC and RS LLC. Each contributed $5,000.
Plain Green is an arm of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. The internet payday lender was a defendant in a federal class action lawsuit alleging a predatory lending scheme in which Native American tribes partnered with Think Finance, a Forth Worth, Texas, company to issue loans with triple-digit interest rates to poor borrowers. The lawsuit settled last December after defendants Think Finance, Plain Green, Great Plains and Mobiloans agreed to pay back more than $50 million and forgive $380 million in debts owed by 1,045,000 borrowers. The case was heard in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia.
RS LLC shares an address with the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Red Rock, Oklahoma. The tribe owns payday lender Great Plains.