HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana campaign finance regulators on Friday released past bank records of a secretive conservative group that is behind many candidate attack ads and challenges to the state's election laws that reveal big-money ties to other conservative groups.
Judge Jeffrey Sherlock on Friday ordered the release of the American Tradition Partnership files collected by the state in a two-year-old case where it is fighting allegations of illegal electioneering. The order comes a day after Sherlock said he will sanction the group for not producing all the organization records sought by the state.
The records, which cover 2008 through 2010, include hundreds of pages of account transactions and copies of checks to lawyers, consultants, vendors and at least one tea party organizer in Montana, Colorado and the Washington, D.C., area, among other locations.
The group launched in 2008 as Western Tradition Partnership based in Bozeman. The group now operates as a tax-exempt social welfare organization located in Washington under the name American Tradition Partnership.
The attorney general's office argues that ATP wrongly hides behind its nonprofit status to funnel money into Montana elections while hiding its donors and spending. Opponents of ATP argue there is mounting evidence that the organization illegally coordinated its spending with candidates, while ATP Executive Director Donald Ferguson said the organization follows the law.
ATP argues disclosure laws run afoul of its constitutional free speech rights.
The group's lawyer said the records should not have been released.
"My only comment is that these documents should not have been released prior to the time it is determined that the State of Montana can regulate WTP in the first instance," Helena attorney James Brown said in an email to The Associated Press. "This ruling effectively moots out WTP's case challenging the ability of the state to obtain its donor records. WTP will be taking appropriate legal action."
The bank records released by Sherlock on Friday are not related to other documents featured in a recent Frontline documentary that are held by the state and claimed by ATP consultant Christian LeFer. Those documents include files on 23 Montana candidates for office, including surveys, candidate signatures, fliers and bank records.
LeFer says those documents were stolen in 2010 from his car in Denver prior to being sent to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. His wife, Allison LeFer, sent the AP an email Friday saying the stolen documents are a mix of records from their two separate businesses.
Christian LeFer has nothing to do with her business, Direct Mail & Communications, LeFer said, adding there has been no improper coordination with candidates.
"I run DM&C on my own, and I alone work with candidates that hire me to run their mail programs. Christian may refer clients to me, but has little to do with my shop, focused as he is on his own, independent work," she wrote.
But the bank documents released Friday show that Allison LeFer was intimately involved in the finances of WTP as the primary signer for the organization's Wells Fargo account, and she signed most of the checks.
She did not return a phone call from The Associated Press seeking clarification on her role with the organization and her direct work with candidates.
The bank records show Western Tradition Partnership took in $500,000 in October 2008, weeks before the election, from Coloradans for Economic Growth. That group has supported conservative ballot measures and policies in that state.
Days later, a total of $500,000 was transferred to the anti-union National Right to Work Committee.
The next year, which was not an election year, the largest transfer at that time was $10,000 on Dec. 9, 2009. That money went to Hackstaff-Gessler, a Colorado law firm known for handling election law cases and headed Scott Gessler, who is now Colorado's Republican secretary of state.
The transfer came before Gessler's run for his current office, and it is not clear what the money was used for.
Besides LeFer, another person authorized to use the Western Tradition Partnership Wells Fargo account was Lucius O'Dell, whose LinkedIn profile lists him as the director of political affairs for the National Association for Gun Rights.
That is the same group that earlier this month asked a judge to suspend Montana election disclosure laws so that it could mail $20,000 worth of postcards attacking gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock — without reporting its funding sources or how it spends its money.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen denied the request, saying the public's right to know who is financing political campaigns outweighs the burden of following the law.
Another of the authorized signers was Jacob Leis, whose LinkedIn profile says he previously worked for the National Association for Gun Rights and Colorado Citizens for Right to Work, another anti-union organization.
Also, the records indicated ties to the owner of Colorado's American Furniture Warehouse. A $325 check went to Jake Jabs' business, the records showed.
Jabs has denied any ties to the group. He denied earlier this week that he gave $300,000 to WTP as shown in a Sept. 29, 2008, letter to the IRS asking that it expedite approval of the group's tax-exempt status.
The letter is among the disputed records LeFer is seeking back from the commissioner of political practices.
Jabs, who also gave a record $25 million donation to Montana State University, told the Bozeman Chronicle earlier this week that he was not related to WTP and had "never heard of these guys." But the bank records show that WTP paid American Furniture Warehouse $325.80 in September 2010 for a "rental unit."
ATP has launched lawsuits that have successfully overturned Montana's 100-year-old ban on some corporate spending in elections, and led to a suspension earlier this month of the state's campaign contribution limits.
Associated Press writer Matt Volz contributed to this report.Tags: