The conservative “dark money” political group fighting state efforts to force disclosure of its finances lost another key court decision Friday, as a state judge ruled that it violated multiple state campaign-finance and election laws.

District Judge Jeff Sherlock, of Helena, citing American Tradition Partnership’s continued failure to produce records requested by the state and the court, adopted the state’s proposed findings that ATP acted as political committee in 2008 and therefore must report its spending and donors.

Sherlock ruled that members and officers of ATP used its corporate, nonprofit status “as a subterfuge to avoid compliance with state disclosure and disclaimer laws during the 2008 Montana election cycle.”

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry, whose office has been investigating ATP over several years, said Friday he’ll likely seek financial penalties against ATP for its violations.

State Assistant Attorney General Mike Black, who has defended the state against ATP’s lawsuit to overturn earlier decisions that it should disclose its spending and donors, said Friday’s ruling “shows no person or entity is above the law.”

“(ATP’s) defiance of Montana law and District Court orders led to an entry of findings which are consistent with our investigation,” Black said.

James Brown, the attorney for ATP, said he’ll be talking to the group’s board of directors this weekend about whether to appeal the ruling or settle the case.

However, he said his client has lost the case on a “procedural dispute” that sets “an extremely dangerous precedent” for anyone or group that wants to fight state efforts to regulate and force disclosure of those behind political speech – even if that speech has a constitutional right to protection.

“In light of this order, if you’re going to challenge the state’s ability to regulate you, you do not want to be the one who files suit, because all of the materials that you want to keep private, become public, just because you filed suit,” Brown said. “It is going to discourage people from filing suit to vindicate their constitutional rights.”

ATP, formerly known as Western Tradition Partnership, sued the state two years ago to challenge a state order that ATP is a political committee that must publicly report its campaign-related spending and financial donors.

Since 2008, ATP has been financing mailers and other activity attacking Montana candidates, but has not filed any reports on its spending or donors.

The nonprofit group that bills itself as a “grassroots organization dedicated to fighting the radical environmentalist agenda” maintained it is a nonprofit, educational group that informs voters and does not advocate for or against candidates – and therefore is not legally required to disclose or detail its donors and spending.

ATP is one of many so-called “dark money” groups that have become active in recent months and years. They are nonprofit groups that say they’re merely educating voters, and not advocating for or against candidates, and therefore don’t have to report their spending or donors.

However, in October 2010, then-Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth ruled that ATP’s activity was a direct effort to influence elections, and therefore was subject to state laws requiring it to report its spending and donors.

As the ATP’s lawsuit challenging Unsworth’s order proceeded, the state asked ATP to provide numerous records on its spending, donors and corporate records, as part of the discovery process before the trial.

ATP refused to provide many of the documents. Three weeks ago, Sherlock finally ruled that because of that refusal, he was dismissing most of the group’s case.

Sherlock then gave ATP 10 days to produce further records. ATP officials and Brown said they couldn’t gather the extensive records in just 10 days and asked for more time.

On Friday, Sherlock rejected that request.

He said in most cases, he would grant more time, but that ATP had waited until the 10th and final day to file its request and that the requested information had been ordered by the court to be produced many months earlier.

Also this week, ATP’s executive director, Donny Ferguson, announced he has resigned to take a job with a Texas congressman, and said he was the group’s only staffer.

Murry said Friday his office is continuing to conduct additional investigations of ATP, in response to complaints that the group has illegally coordinated its efforts with Montana candidates.

(4) comments


Mike Dennison,

This is an awfully long article for not explaining specifically what the organization did or is suspected of having done. If there was/is an investigation and a judge involved, then surely there are legible, understandable charges that you should share with us so that we don't have to go demand records.

Are we supposed to surmise that anyone could be the object of litigation in this way? What can the average citizen do to defend against something similar? Will somebody's coffee discussion group be "investigated" next? Exactly who are the investigators? Have they been involved with anything shady before?

For that matter, is there any evidence of a punitive investigation?

We all understand clearly that some people in each political mindset avidly hate people of other mindsets. Modern political hatred is sometimes overwhelming. Should we be concerned that a court system has gone off the rails?

Nice people are dead because of Left-Wing environmental extremism. Nobody investigates that. Do we not figure that at least a reporter could wonder about the investigatory imbalance and the loss of life?

Obviously, your articles on this subject predispose people against this target group and against Conservatives in general. Is this what a reporter is supposed to do? Is a reporter supposed to make opinion or merely to report on the opinions of others?

Gordon Shumway
Gordon Shumway

Let's see, with the ATP, gerrymandering, attack radio, slurs (Bengahzi flu), Faux News, obstructionism, causing our credit rating to downgrade, denying global warming, and the stead fast protection of the top 1%, the GOP (tea party) has really shown what it is made of.


ATP's attorney Brown has some real chutzpah, complaining that they should be subject to the same discovery process to which any defendant, in this case the state, is entitled.

I'm guessing they got most of their dough from the Koch brothers and those of similar ilk. They are the 21st Century equivalent of Montana's own robber baron, William A. Clark. They don't believe laws should apply to them.

I'm only sorry that this isn't being prosecuted as a criminal case, given that in involves apparent tax fraud. Both the contributors and the operators of this assault on our voting rights belong in the pokey, accompanied by all those Wall Street banksters who nearly drove the country to ruin.


Love it. This story is the gift that keeps on giving...keep up the reporting on this nest of cockroaches.

Shame on Rick Hill for climbing into bed with these dudes.

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