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Montana to Probe Dark Money Group’s Link to Campaigns

by and Emma Schwartz
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Two Republican state legislators in Montana have filed complaints against Western Tradition Partnership, an issue-advocacy group central to the Supreme Court decision reaffirming Citizens United.

They allege that the group, now known as American Tradition Partnership, coordinated inappropriately with the campaigns of Republican candidates in Montana. Groups registered as 501(c)(4)s are allowed to lobby on issues, and participate in elections by running ads in support of a candidate or critical of their opponent. But they cannot be primarily engaged in political campaigns and cannot coordinate, or work directly, with candidates.

FRONTLINE obtained boxes of documents that appeared to link WTP to the campaigns of 23 Republican candidates. The boxes included detailed candidate surveys, campaign mailings and letters written on behalf of the candidates’ wives and the candidates themselves. The documents were initially received by Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices, or COPP, a state organization that oversees campaign finance laws.

“My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that WTP was running a lot of these campaigns,” COPP investigator Julie Steab previously told FRONTLINE.

But the state investigative body didn’t have the authority to investigate possible coordination by WTP without specific complaints filed against the group.

Steab said Thursday that, with specific complaints by two legislators filed and a third being processed, COPP will begin an investigation into those allegations.

The documents obtained by FRONTLINE reference a man named Christian LeFer, who was a key player in WTP between 2008 and 2010. His wife, Allison LeFer, signed many of the checks paid out by WTP from April 2008 to October 2010. LeFer and his wife have said that the documents were theirs, but that the appearance of coordination is the result of the co-mingling of separate files from his political consulting business and her printing business.

In a complaint filed to COPP on Dec. 3 against WTP and Allison LeFer’s company DirectMail, State Representative John Esp alleges that at a campaign event ahead of the 2010 primary election, he saw Allison LeFer with with Ed Soddy, the campaign manager for Esp’s opponent, Rep. Joel Boniek, and “a young lady from Colorado who was introduced to me by Allison as ‘working for Christian.'” Allison LeFer’s company was working with Boniek’s campaign. But LeFer had also signed checks for WTP at the time, Esp said, citing some of the documents that FRONTLINE uncovered. “I believe there may have been a violation” of campaign finance law, he wrote.

Esp also filed a complaint against Doug Lair, the state coordinator for ATP, and two others, alleging that they violated campaign finance laws.

In another complaint filed the same day, Sen. Bruce Tutvedt alleged that his opponent in this year’s Republican primary, Rollan Roberts II, coordinated with American Tradition Partnership, Taxpayers for Liberty, and the National Association of Gun Rights. “Rollan Roberts campaign mailed pink wife letter as per Christian Lafer (sic) paid for by Roberts campaign,” Tutvedt wrote.

“Their complaints are phony and meritless,” said Donny Ferguson, a spokesman for ATP, in an email to FRONTLINE. “These are two corrupt politicians trying to use smears and threats to cover up their own unethical activities and woeful voting records. It’s typical of the corrupt Helena establishment they represent.”

He added: “ATP always has and always will obey every letter of every applicable law.”

Christian LeFer said in an email that the complaints “had no merit”: “I speak only for myself here when I say the developments of the past few days are simply the last desperate attempts of a defeated Helena political establishment to slander the strides I and others have made on behalf of freedom for all Montanans.”

He added, “Esp and Tutvedt are simply trying to retaliate for exposure of their own extreme anti-liberty voting record, and cover up their unethical history of political intimidation. They failed in their bid for liberal control of the Legislature, and ultimately these baseless complaints will fail as well.”

Allison LeFer didn’t respond to an email seeking a comment.

WTP and those cited will have an opportunity to respond to the COPP complaints before the investigation proceeds, Steab said in an email on Friday. COPP can interview witnesses and gather documentation. The commissioner then reviews the findings and determines whether a violation occurred and if so, to hand down a penalty, typically a fine for as much as three times the value of the violation.

But it’s unclear how long the process will take. “Each case is different and a lot depends on how cooperative all of the parties are in terms of providing information,” Steab said. She declined to comment on the specifics of these cases because the investigations are confidential.

Separately, a Montana district court issued an order this week in a case filed by WTP against the Commissioner of Political Practices and the state of Montana. WTP had claimed that the state’s political disclosure rules don’t apply to the group for the election years of 2008 and 2010 because it’s a nonprofit educational organization and not a political committee.

In the Dec. 10 order, Judge Jeffrey Sherlock said that WTP had refused to comply with discovery requests that the court ordered to ascertain WTP’s status. “The Court noted that the Plaintiffs themselves (WTP) have placed their private information into dispute by bringing this lawsuit; obviously suggesting that full discovery is required,” Sherlock wrote, adding that the answers were still incomplete. “Never in this author’s 24 years on the bench has he had a litigant flatly refuse to comply with two discovery orders,” he wrote.

Sherlock said that WTP would be required to pay for the attorney fees and costs to the state for requesting discovery and asking for WTP to be sanctioned for noncompliance. He said WTP would have to comply with the court’s request for additional information within 10 days — by Dec. 21 — or be declared a political committee and have to disclose its donors.

“The Court is no longer interested in hearing WTP’s objections,” the judge concluded. “All the Court wants is answers to the questions that have been propounded.”

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