Police were investigating a late-night break-in at the office where the state's campaign finance records are kept, but officials said Thursday no documents appeared to be missing.
The investigation comes just five days before the election and during a legal challenge by a consultant to a conservative group over files held by the Office of the Commissioner of Campaign Finances and Practices.
A Capitol security guard reported the break-in at 9:47 p.m. Wednesday, finding the door open and the basement light on. Security had been heightened in the days leading to Tuesday's election.
The basement is where the contested documents from American Tradition Partnership consultant Christian LeFer were held until recently, as had previously been reported in the news.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry said he does not know whether somebody was trying to steal those documents.
"That's the question everybody is asking and, frankly, that was my concern. But that's speculative,'' Murry said.
Political practices program supervisor Mary Baker said the documents are secure, and previously had been moved off-site. The staff has not found anything missing from the office, which occupies a house on Eighth Avenue, just off the main Capitol complex.
Financial statements were due in the office Oct. 25 from nearly every candidate for political office in the state, resulting in piles of documents on desks and counters in the office in recent days.
"It is hard to tell for sure because there are so many documents here in the office,'' Baker said.
ATP is involved in several lawsuits with the state, which argues the group is engaged in illegal electioneering. The conservative group, actively attacking Attorney General Steve Bullock in a fake newspaper being distributed around the state, is also suing the state over campaign finance laws.
The group successfully overturned Montana's 100-year-old ban on some corporate spending in elections.
The tax-exempt social welfare group convinced federal courts earlier this month to suspend the state's campaign contribution limits, a decision reversed six days later as arguments continue in that case. That has led to turmoil in the governor's race over a disputed $500,000 donation to Republican candidate Rick Hill, who is running against Bullock.
In the news
The documents currently held by the commissioner's office were featured earlier this week in a "Frontline'' documentary. The story said the documents had been found in a reputed Denver drug house.
LeFer filed a complaint in court earlier this week seeking the return of the documents, claiming their release will irreparably harm his business. Lefer said the documents were in his car when it was stolen in Denver in June, 2010.
Lefer's attorney, Quentin Rhoades, did not return a call seeking comment about the break-in and ongoing legal challenge.
An Associated Press request to see the records has been rejected by Murry.
"Based on the lawsuit and investigations regarding potential violations of state law, the office of the commissioner of political practices can no longer make the documents available for public inspection until further order of the court,'' Murry said.
The Helena Police Department is leading the investigation, Chief Troy McGee said. He would not say whether there was any sign of forced entry of the office’s door.
Oct. 22, the Helena campaign office of Steve Bullock, the Democratic candidate for governor, also reported a break-in. Campaign staff said a broken laptop computer, a bicycle pump belonging to a staffer and $1,500 on campaign donations ($1,400 of it in checks) were missing.
The break-in ensured that ATP remained at the center of high-profile developments in the campaign finance saga in Montana.
A judge said Thursday that he will sanction American Tradition Partnership — at the center of several legal battles over Montana's campaign laws — for failing to produce organizational records in a 2-year-old case where it is fighting allegations of illegal electioneering.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena said, after a Thursday afternoon hearing, that he will specify the sanctions against American Tradition Partnership after reviewing further written arguments from each side.
The state wants to move forward with penalties sought by the commissioner of political practices. The group argues disclosure would violate its constitutional rights, and instead asked the judge to force more negotiation over disclosure with the state.
"At this point, some sanction will be forthcoming. I don't know what it will be," Sherlock told both sides.
The attorney general's office said that ATP was in "willful disobedience" of court orders to produce records as part of discovery in the case.
"I have never seen anyone stand in front of a judge and say his client's choice is not to obey that judge's orders, and furthermore to say they will continue to disobey the courts orders," said Assistant Attorney General Andy Huff.
The state said documents still not produced by the group as ordered by the judge include organizational records, a list of board members, bylaws, meeting minutes and some communications. The state argues that ATP is not really a nonprofit, social welfare organization as it claims — and says it is really a front group to allow anonymous money to flow into the elections process.
ATP attorney James Brown argues the court's order violates the group's constitutional speech and other rights. But he told Sherlock that ATP did not appeal prior orders to produce the records because it does not believe it would win in front of the Montana Supreme Court.
Brown opened Thursday's afternoon hearing on potential sanctions against his client by bringing up the break-in at political practices, which followed a protest in front of his office a day earlier from those opposed to ATP's undisclosed activities. Brown said the intrigue felt "like being in a John Grisham book."
The records are not part of the case before Sherlock, but are the focus of a separate legal challenge as ATP consultant Christian LeFer seeks to prevent further public disclosure. An Associated Press request to see the records has been rejected by Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry, citing investigations into potential violations of state law.
Lefer's attorney, Quentin Rhoades, did not return a call seeking comment about the break-in and that ongoing legal challenge.
-- Reporter Sanjay Talwani contributed to this story