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Sen. Fred Thomas

Sen. Fred Thomas.

There’s an old saying that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Unfortunately, in recent attempts to shine a light on dark money in Montana, the groups operating in the shadows are fighting back.

Voters may recall that in 2012, over $1 million was funneled into a political action committee called Montana Hunters and Anglers to support Sen. John Tester’s re-election. Attempts by PBS investigators to figure out where the money came from led to a shadowy organization based out of a P.O. Box in Washington, D.C., and a cold trail.

If that sounds bad, the problem goes much deeper. Consider that far more money — including millions linked to foreign interests — has been pouring into Montana for years. Instead of going to political campaigns directly, it has gone to political activist groups.

A recent report released by the Montana Outdoors Coalition and Green Decoys highlights the money trail and zeroes in on three sources. The report is based on publicly available nonprofit tax returns.

The first is Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, who has given hundreds of millions to mostly environmental groups. Over $30 million of Wyss money has gone to groups in Montana, such as the Montana Wildlife Federation, which lobby on state bills.

The second is Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, who is a well-known supporter of liberal causes. Over $60 million of Soros money has gone to “pass-through” entities that fund or operate groups in Montana.

Lastly, the report notes that an offshore foundation in Bermuda gave $23 million to an environmental group in San Francisco, which in turn has links to Montana environmental advocacy groups. That Bermuda foundation — which appears to exist only on paper — is based out of a law firm that has ties to Russian offshore investments. 

Let’s put this in real terms. Did you hear or see the ad blitzes online and on TV regarding the national monuments issue over the past year? Ever wonder where all that money came from? This report gives you an idea — although the ultimate funders still aren’t clear.

Foreign influence in Montana should be troubling to everyone, no matter what one’s personal politics.

The report raises a number of important questions about money funding activism and ads in Montana. Why are Montana environmental groups taking so much out-of-state money? Who are Montana environmental groups representing: Their membership or their wealthy, out-of-state/foreign donors? And if it’s the latter — as the old saying goes, he who has the gold makes the rules — then how does the agenda of these billionaires affect the people of Montana?

A more detailed investigation is needed in order to determine the extent of any foreign influence on the state and answer these questions.

The response from the state environmental lobby has been telling. The environmentalists don’t dispute the basic facts of the report, but have attacked the report’s authors.

As the majority leader of the state Senate, I believe in transparency, and I don’t believe activist groups should be using foreign money in Montana politics.

As such, I am supporting Ravalli County, whose commissioners recently called on state Attorney Gen. Tim Fox to open an investigation.

I also believe Gov. Bullock and Sen. Tester must show that they are more than just words. Bullock and Tester have both spoken out against dark money, and the governor featured prominently in a recent documentary on the matter.

But since foreign/dark money appears to be largely helping Montana environmental groups — who are their political allies — will they support efforts to investigate the money trail?

I won’t hold my breath. But I hope to be surprised.

One way or the other, county commissioners, state legislators, and other elected officials would be justified in investing the out-of-state millions that has been pouring into environmental activist groups that lobby in Montana. Voters who care about transparency in the political process should take note of who supports transparency, and who doesn’t.

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Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, is the majority leader of the Montana Senate. 

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