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More Politicians Accused of Illegal Collusion with Dark-Money Group

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Watch Big Sky, Big Money, FRONTLINE’s examination of how the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has affected American politics.

At least nine candidates for state office in Montana may have coordinated illegally with a dark-money group ahead of the 2010 elections, according to the commissioner responsible for investigating political practices in the state.

The group, Western Tradition Partnership, which later changed its name to American Tradition Partnership, was featured in Big Sky, Big Money, FRONTLINE’s investigation with ProPublica and Marketplace into how the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Citizens United has changed political campaigns.

WTP, which described itself as “dedicated to fighting environmental extremism,” was registered as a 501(c)4, or a nonprofit, social-welfare group. That means it’s not required to disclose its donors and can engage in some political activity, as long as that isn’t the group’s primary purpose. As a result of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which held that political spending is a form of protected speech, such groups are allowed to spend as much as they like. But as “independent” groups, they can’t coordinate with candidates.

The Democrat-appointed commissioner, Jonathan Motl, found that WTP stepped over the line in 2010 in at least four cases by writing, printing and distributing campaign fliers for and against local legislative candidates. Motl also found that the same four candidates, including a current state house representative, violated campaign law by coordinating with WTP and not reporting the contributions that they received from the group.

Commissioner Motl’s latest decisions, released on Jan. 22, accused Joel Boniek and Terry Bannan, both of whom lost state representative races in 2010, of failing to properly report the aid they received from WTP.

In December, Motl found that another candidate, Rep. Mike Miller, violated campaign practices law for coordinating with WTP during his successful 2010 run for the state legislature. Letters apparently written by WTP on behalf of Miller and his wife urging voters to support him were featured in Big Sky, Big Money.

Motl said he plans to take the cases before a judge, who has the power to rule on his findings and can impose penalties, including a fines. A judge could also remove Miller, the only candidate who won his race, from office.

Miller didn’t respond to an email seeking a comment, but the local Independent Record reported that Miller has denied coordinating with any third-party group and breaking any campaign finance laws.

Neither Bannan nor Boniek responded to voicemails seeking a comment. Bannan told FRONTLINE in 2012 that he had worked with Christian LeFer, who at the time was a WTP official, but denied any improper involvement.

Motl has also opened investigations into the relationship between WTP and five additional candidates, including Art Wittich, Montana’s state senate majority leader; a sitting state senator and two state senatorial candidates, to determine whether they engaged in any wrongdoing.

Wittich did not respond to a message left on his cell phone, but he told the Missoulian that the idea that he illegally coordinated with WTP is “silly.” He also described Motl as a “partisan hack” who is trying to “silence and gag conservative candidates.”

Motl said he is aware of at least 10 more candidates who worked with WTP in 2010, but said he won’t have time to investigate them all due to the statute of limitations. “But — not that this is good news, this is tragic news — we have 2011 and 2012, where we have a number of complaints dealing with WTP that we will next turn to,” he said.

The commissioner was able to pursue so many cases related to the 2010 election because of boxes of documents abandoned in a Colorado meth house that were later obtained by FRONTLINE. They included letters and fliers written on behalf of several candidates and their wives urging voters to support them. Christian LeFer and his wife, Allison, who owned a printing shop, Direct Mail and Communications, Inc., later claimed that the documents had been stolen from one of their cars. They have denied any wrongdoing.

The commissioner’s findings are the latest against WTP, which has essentially dissolved. Christian LeFer has his own business as a consultant and entrepreneur. WTP’s executive director, Donny Ferguson, later left the group and worked as a campaign manager for Rep. Steve Stockman in Texas. ATP’s website hasn’t been updated in a year, and the phone numbers listed on the website don’t work. No one responded to emails sent to two addresses on the site.

Motl, the commissioner, said the office would continue to investigate WTP and other groups affiliated with it, including Direct Mail and Communications Inc. But he wants to focus first on the candidates, he said.

“We have the 2014 elections coming up,” he said. “The 2014 candidates deserve to know what the rules are and how they should deal with or avoid nonprofits during their campaigns.”

The commissioner’s office isn’t the only investigation into WTP. In December 2012, a federal grand jury subpoenaed the documents FRONTLINE uncovered. Those proceedings are secret, and no findings have yet been released.

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