A pro-natural resource development group and a Bozeman painting company asked a Helena District Court on Monday to strike down Montana’s 1912 ban on corporate donations and expenditures to political campaigns to comply with a January U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Western Tradition Partnership and Champion Painting Inc. filed the lawsuit against Attorney General Steve Bullock and Political Practices Commissioner Dennis Unsworth.

They asked Helena District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock to declare Montana’s long-standing prohibition against corporate donations and expenditures to be unconstitutional and illegal. They want Sherlock to stop Bullock, county attorneys and Unsworth from enforcing this law until he issues a ruling.

Both Western Tradition Partnership and Champion Painting said they want the law tossed out because they want to spend corporate funds to communicate with Montana voters in the June and November 2010 election about where candidates stand on the issues. They also want to do the same on ballot issues.

The plaintiffs cited the Jan. 21 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In that ruling, the court overturned a federal ban on corporate spending in political campaigns.

They took aim at Montana’s law, which voters adopted by initiative in 1912. This law says: “A corporation may not make a contribution or expenditure in connection with a candidate or a political committee that supports or opposes a candidate or a political party.”

Western Tradition Partnership and Champion Painting contended this prohibition violates both the state and federal constitutions by restricting “their freedom to engage in political speech.”

The plaintiffs noted that that both Bullock and Unsworth have made clear in public statements they intend to enforce the state ban against corporate donations and spending in state political campaigns.

The plaintiffs cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision, which said in part: “(p)olitical speech does not lose its First Amendment protection ‘simply because its source is a corporation.’”

The Montana law, they said, doesn’t prevent persons other than corporations, such as individuals, unincorporated businesses, unions or the media from making the same expenditures and “thereby engaging in political speech.”

They asked Sherlock to provide them with various damages, plus the costs of the lawsuit and attorney fees. Their attorney is Margot E. Barg of the Wittich Law Firm of Bozeman.

“Our republican and democratic process is only healthy when all sides can speak freely,” said Donny Ferguson, Western Tradition Partnership’s spokesman. “One side of the argument, namely government officials, should not have a legally enforced monopoly on speech.”

Champion Painting’s owner, Ken Champion, declined to comment.

Bullock, through a spokesman, and Unsworth both declined to discuss the lawsuit until they have a chance to study it.

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Bullock, testifying before a U.S. Senate committee last month, said, “I am principally concerned about the ways state elections are especially vulnerable to corporate corruption and ask you to keep these concerns in mind as you consider reforms.”

Western Tradition Partnership referred to itself as “a grass-roots organization dedicated to ‘Rediscovering America’s National Treasure’ by promoting responsible natural resource development, private property rights and multiple use of and access to public lands.” Its Web site calls itself “the leading organization fighting the anti-jobs, anti-taxpayer policy agenda of extreme environmentalist front groups.” It is organized in Denver and registered in Montana.

Former U.S. Rep. Ron Marlenee, R-Mont., and former state Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, were involved in the organization of the Montana affiliate of Western Tradition Partnership in 2008.

In the complaint, Western Tradition Partnership said it surveys candidates at all levels to determine their stances on a number issues. The group said it would like to use corporate funds to poll, send mailings, advertise and make phone calls to publicly support and oppose candidates.

The state political practices commissioner’s office has a pending complaint against the partnership that was filed shortly before the November 2008 election by Great Falls attorney Turner Graybill. He contended that Western Partnership Group failed to have the proper disclaimer on a brochure attacking Brad Hamlett, a Democratic state Senate candidate who later won his race.

Monday’s lawsuit said Champion also actively supports and opposes political candidates at the local and state level and is an active member of the Gallatin County Campaign for Liberty and the Bozeman Tea Party. He wants to educate voters about “the consequences of unrestrained government spending” and how inflation, taxation and spending “are exploiting, impacting and bankrupting American and Montana’s small businesses.”

Champion Painting intends to spend corporate funds on TV and radio ads and to pay for the printing and distribution of brochures before the primary and general election this year to inform voters about political candidates and ballot issues and how they will affect small businesses.

Ken Champion was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the Legislature in 2008, losing to Rep. Franke Wilmer, D-Bozeman.

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