In Big Sky Country, a Campaign Finance Fight Reverberates Still

August 27, 2015
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

(Getty Images)

One thing we know about political campaigns nearly five years after the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision is that they’ve become as expensive as ever. Last year alone, spending on Congressional races reached an all-time high, while the 2016 race for the White House is all but certain to become the priciest in U.S. history.

What’s been tougher to measure is the extent to which that spending boom may be fueling corruption in politics. Citizens United stripped limits on how much money a corporation or union can spend on a political campaign — provided they donate to an independent outside group, rather than direct to a candidate. Candidates are not supposed to coordinate with such “dark money” organizations, but enforcing the rules has proved to be a challenge for regulators.

Enter Montana, a state that’s been at the epicenter of the campaign finance debate. As far back as 1912, it had a law on the books restricting corporate spending in elections. And in 2011, in a direct challenge to Citizens United, the state supreme court reaffirmed that ban.

That decision was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court by a group called American Tradition Partnership (ATP), a 501(c)(4) group that described itself as pro-growth and “dedicated to fighting environmental extremism.” The Supreme Court rejected Montana’s challenge, ruling in favor of ATP and reaffirming that Citizens United applies on the state and local level.

The ensuing fallout has offered a unique window into the dynamics between SuperPACs, dark money groups and the political candidates they support. Election officials in Montana have battled to limit the influence of corporate money in their races, and ATP, which was previously named Western Tradition Partnership (WTP) has remained at the center of this feud.

As a 501(c)(4) group, ATP does not have to disclose its donors. It can lobby on issues, and run ads for or against a candidate. But by law, it cannot be primarily engaged in political campaigns and cannot coordinate, or work directly, with candidates.

Because it doesn’t have to disclose donors, much of what is known about the group has instead been gleaned from documents that were found in a Colorado meth house and shared with FRONTLINE and ProPublica for our 2012 investigation, Big Sky, Big Money. The documents appeared to link WTP to the campaigns of 23 Republican candidates, and included detailed candidate surveys, campaign mailings and letters written on behalf of the candidates’ wives and the candidates themselves.

In 2013, a Montana court ruled that the group used “subterfuge” to avoid complying with state election law in the 2008 campaign cycle. Last year, the Democrat-appointed commissioner charged with investigating political practices in the state found that at least nine candidates may have coordinated illegally with the group ahead of the 2010 elections.

A new development came last week, when one of the nine candidates was found guilty of corruption and banned from running in future statewide elections. According to the judge in the case, the former state representative, Republican Joel Boniek, failed to disclose more than $9,000 in contributions from WTP, which carried out a direct-mail campaign in support of his 2010 bid for a seat in the state House — which he lost.

In his decision, District Court Judge Gregory Pinski wrote that Boniek “had personal knowledge of the full range” of WTP’s direct-mail campaign, and that he provided “general campaigning authority, including his signature, to WTP.”

The judge accused Boniek of “quid pro quo corruption,” noting that WTP “bragged generally that those candidates that it supported ‘… rode into office in 100% support of WTP’s responsible development agenda.'”

“What Candidate Boniek received, then, (the quid), was the appearance of a grass roots campaign created by direct mail for which he did not pay, report or disclose,” wrote the judge. “What Candidate Boniek promised in return (the pro quo) for that benefit was unswerving fealty to the corporations carrying out the direct mail campaign.”

In an interview with the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Boniek denied any wrongdoing, saying that the case against him was politically motivated.

“They treat me like an enemy of the state because their agenda is socialism,” Boniek told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “I don’t fear them anymore. I am a political dissident. You don’t get attacked by the system unless you stand against their injustice. I have the courage, and I speak for the little people that are powerless. I am a servant of god. I am in his protection. I stand in my integrity.”

The Boniek case is the third of the nine WTP-related cases to be brought to conclusion. Two other candidates have settled similar complaints against them. A third settlement could come any day, according to Jonathan Motl, the state commissioner who brought the cases. The remaining five appear headed for court.

Related Film: Big Sky, Big Money

A tale of money and politics from Montana, the epicenter of the campaign finance debate.

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