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Transcript

Big Sky, Big Money

CORRESPONDENT
Kai Ryssdal

CO-PRODUCER
Anthony Szulc

WRITTEN, PRODUCED & DIRECTED BY
Rick Young

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: It’s time to send a message to Washington.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Stop spending money we don’t have.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: How can we afford this tax?

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: —corporations and the richest 2 percent—

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: What’s at stake is the future of America.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: It costs us and taxes us too much.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: American Future Fund is responsible for the content of this advertising.

KAI RYSSDAL, APM’s Marketplace: [voice-over] I knew right away this wasn’t going to be the usual story on campaign finance. One of the first surprises was finding myself driving the dark streets of Denver with attorney Alan Schwartz, who shared kind of a strange experience.

ALAN SCHWARTZ: It’s early January of 2011. And my wife, who had just been reelected to the Colorado state senate, got an email from someone who claimed to have some information about a group that had sent out some attack ads against my wife.

KAI RYSSDAL: The guy said he had some documents. And a week later—

ALAN SCHWARTZ: I heard from this individual again, still not identifying himself but telling me that if I wanted to see the documents, then I needed to get them that day.

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] Had to be that day.

ALAN SCHWARTZ: Had to be that day.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] Schwartz agreed to meet the guy, who said the documents were stashed in a safe house that he would take him to.

ALAN SCHWARTZ: I didn’t know where we were going. For the half hour that we drove from Denver to Littleton, he told me his story.

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] Mark Seibel. Seibel, right?

MARK SEIBEL: Seibel, yes. Basically—

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] The man with the documents was Mark Seibel, a convicted felon who’d spent most of his life living on the streets. One night, while staying at a known drug house near Denver—

MARK SEIBEL: I found these buckets of documents.

KAI RYSSDAL: Documents, he says, a friend found in a stolen car.

MARK SEIBEL: I found pages and pages of, like, a particular politician’s name, like, you know, would be written, you know, like, 20 times on a piece of paper. And then there was, like— then there’d be one that was cut out and an arrow pointing to it, and it’d say “Use this one.” You know, a lot of cut and paste things going on. I took pictures of all the mailers laid out. I took pictures, kind of grouped things into categories.

Somebody had transported them from Montana to here, and it was P.O. box to P.O. box. There was just something wasn’t right about them.

ALAN SCHWARTZ: It was a very weird story that Mark was telling me. Everything about it was odd and peculiar.

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] So this is the house.

ALAN SCHWARTZ: This is the house. The gentleman who was living here, who was keeping the documents, opened the door. He was blind. He reaches out, though, and he grabs me by the arm and he pulls me into the house.

And I immediately see that there are several boxes, four or five very large containers on the floor. I could tell that law enforcement would find them very important and interesting, and I was determined to get them to the right place as quickly as I could.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] The boxes did turn out to be both interesting and important, and they eventually ended up in the right place, here, with the Commissioner of Political Practices in Helena, Montana.

But that’s a story — of secrets and money and politics — that we’ll come back to. First, I need to tell you what’s been going on in Montana’s elections.

I got to Butte on the 4th of July. On the surface, there was the usual hoopla and fanfare— marching bands, flag twirlers, Shriners, mermaids, and of course, politicians of every stripe.

MARCHER: Butte’s candidate right here!

MARCHER: Reelect Pat Noonan! He’s my son!

KAI RYSSDAL: But there’s something different about this year’s campaign. There are new hidden forces at work. Nowhere is this more evident than in a barnburner of a race that may well decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.

With the stakes so high, this race is attracting big money from lots of outside groups. The incumbent fighting to hold onto his seat is Democrat Jon Tester, and he says he’s not happy about all this outside money.

Sen. JON TESTER (D), Montana: We’re going to see a ton of money spent in Montana. We’re seeing money earlier, more of it, and with more regularity. And I think we’re in the process right now of building a campaign infrastructure that’s going to be very difficult to pull down as time goes on. It’s getting to be big, big, big money.

KAI RYSSDAL: Big money is at the heart of this story. Two years ago, the Supreme Court changed the landscape of campaign finance with a controversial decision in a case called Citizens United. It let corporations and unions spend unlimited amounts of money in campaigns. But to avoid corruption, the court said the money can’t go directly to candidates, it has to go to independent outside groups— the key word here being “independent.”

One supporter of Citizens United is Tester’s opponent, six-term Republican congressman Denny Rehberg.

Rep. DENNY REHBERG (R-MT), Senate Candidate: If you believe in the 1st Amendment, which is free speech, then you better believe in political free speech. What’s more important to this country than political free speech? Because it’s what guides us. It’s what allows us the opportunity to govern ourselves.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Over a thousand have left limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Congressman Rehberg voted against additional critical funding for—

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Jon Tester votes to raise taxes—

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s not hard to find political free speech in Montana today. You see it all the time in what seems to be an endless run of political attack ads.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: —and voted to raise the debt limit six times—

KAI RYSSDAL: And the amount of money being spent is amazing.

Prof. DAVID PARKER, Montana State University: It could be $20 million in broadcast dollars. How do you like them apples? In the state of Montana!

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] So long as I know where the apples are coming from, I’m all right. That’s the question. I don’t know where the apples are coming from.

Prof. DAVID PARKER: Right. We don’t know where the apples are coming from, and that’s the problem here.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] David Parker is a professor at Montana State University. He’s been tracking the TV ad spending in this senate race.

Prof. DAVID PARKER: It is incredibly difficult to actually figure out where this money is coming into this state, and then let alone to figure actually who’s actually giving the money.

KAI RYSSDAL: Parker’s research shows that a lot of new groups had gotten into the Montana Senate race this summer.

[on camera] So you’ve been out at every television station in the state, right?

Prof. DAVID PARKER: Nearly, yes.

KAI RYSSDAL: Almost. Asked for their records. You looked it up. You added up all the money. What do we know about where that money is coming from?

Prof. DAVID PARKER: Well, yeah, $6.8 million was spent on broadcast television in the Senate race through June. About 68 percent of that money comes from outside groups— 68 percent. That’s amazing. You know, that’s not the political parties. That’s not Tester and that’s not Rehberg, but that’s outside groups.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: He was the deciding vote to pass the health care law which—

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] Here’s why Parker thinks that matters.

Prof. DAVID PARKER: Overwhelmingly, it’s not the candidates themselves who are actually running for this office who are basically telling their stories. It’s not even their parties here within the state. It’s these outside groups. They’re calling the shots in terms of what’s being talked about in this race, moreso than the candidates. That’s the problem.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Tell Congressman Rehberg government fences and drones are wrong for Montana.

KAI RYSSDAL: So who are all these outside groups calling the shots?

RODELL MOLLINEAU, Pres., American Bridge 21st Century: What we affectionately call the war room.

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] Got it.

[voice-over] To find out, I had to go all the way to Washington, D.C., where I was taken inside one of the Democrats’ key super-PACs, American Bridge 21st Century.

[on camera] This looks for all the world like a bunch of kids sitting around, surfing the Web.

RODELL MOLLINEAU: For the most part, yeah. But they are very smart kids and they know what they’re looking for.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] Rodell Mollineau, the president of American Bridge, showed me around.

[on camera] Tell me what these guys are doing.

[voice-over] It was a rare look at the world of outside groups. American Bridge was the only super-PAC, in fact, that let us in to see what they do.

RODELL MOLLINEAU: Some of these people are video specialists. Some of them are researchers.

KAI RYSSDAL: It had the look and the feel of a candidate’s campaign. But they actually can’t work with candidates. They have to be independent.

RODELL MOLLINEAU: We don’t coordinate with candidates. We can’t coordinate with candidates. That’s against the law.

KAI RYSSDAL: What makes this super-PAC stand out is that it specializes in opposition research.

RODELL MOLLINEAU: These are the people who come up with the research that you’re going to find in the direct mail piece, in the 30-second ad, in the on-line ad. That happens here.

KAI RYSSDAL: What also happens is this. You see that video footage there? It comes from this guy. He’s a tracker. He works for American Bridge. He’s one of 19 trackers they have out in the field following Republican candidates.

RODELL MOLLINEAU: We’re looking for inconsistencies. Everyone that’s working on a specific candidate knows this candidate inside and out. If the person slips up, if the person says X instead of Y, if there’s a flip-flop, we know about it. Then from there, it’s a decision of what we decide to do with that video.

KAI RYSSDAL: In their meetings in the mornings, the staff reviews their top campaign priorities.

RODELL MOLLINEAU: Hey, people. So what have we got?

KAI RYSSDAL: Like the Senate race in Montana.

AMERICAN BRIDGE STAFFER: John McCain is heading to Montana—

KAI RYSSDAL: And they carefully plot strategy to help shape the message for voters.

AMERICAN BRIDGE STAFFER: Also, we can sort of highlight McCain’s hypocrisy for campaigning with Rehberg because McCain is such a fiscal hawk and Denny’s such a big spender, obviously, being a member of the approps committee.

RODELL MOLLINEAU: It’s not nearly as sexy as I think some people would want it to be. No, this is mostly public information. You just need to know where to look at it. And what you do is you put together the political history of a candidate, every vote that they’ve ever taken, every political statement that they had made, any contradictions that you might find, business dealings that they might have— that they might have had before being in Congress, or even business dealings they had while they were in Congress.

Rep. DENNY REHBERG: [CSSF television commercial] I’ll never support or take a pay raise—

KAI RYSSDAL: Here’s where their research pays off. They share it with other outside groups, who then make ads that show up in Montana, ads like this one, made by a group called Citizens for Strength and Security Fund.

ANNOUNCER: [CSSF television commercial] Dennis Rehberg billed taxpayers over $100,000 to lease an SUV—

KAI RYSSDAL: This ad is like so many others that have been running this year It’s hard-hitting and negative.

ANNOUNCER: [CSSF television commercial] —giving himself thousands more per year at our expense.

KAI RYSSDAL: It also represents a growing trend in campaign finance, secretive outside groups that are trying to influence elections.

ANNOUNCER: [CSSF television commercial] We need a balanced approach, not pay raises and perks.

KAI RYSSDAL: At Wesleyan University, I found Professor Erika Franklin Fowler. She’s made a speciality of studying these kinds of ads. So I asked her how Citizens United has changed things.

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER, Wesleyan University: The Citizens United case and a couple of recent decisions just prior to that have led to a more relaxed atmosphere in which outside groups can do just about anything that they want to do in terms of political advertising spending.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: What’s job-killer John Hickenlooper’s plan for Colorado?

KAI RYSSDAL: One of the most visible consequences of this new atmosphere has been the explosive growth of ads made by tax-exempt non-profits known as 501(c)(4)s.

They’re different from the super-PACs that we’ve all heard so much about. Super-PACs have to tell us where they get their money, but the 501(c)(4)s—

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: The 501(c)(4)s are not required to disclose their donors, and there are ways in which they can get around having to do so. So there are certain advantages, and strategic actors are maybe more likely to want to funnel their funds through a 501(c)(4) than they might be other types of outside organizations.

[www.pbs.org: The rules for ad spending]

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] Strategic actors?

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: Strategic actors.

KAI RYSSDAL: Help me understand.

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: Yeah. So if I want to contribute money that is intended to be— benefit a particular candidate or a particular political party, but I don’t want that money trail to come back to me, I’m going to choose a different way to give money than I might otherwise.

KAI RYSSDAL: So that would be a 501(c)(4), right, which doesn’t have to disclose its donors.

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: Exactly.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: It’s time to send a message to Washington. Stop—

KAI RYSSDAL, APM’s Marketplace: [voice-over] Turns out 501(c)(4)s can keep their money trail hidden by talking about issues, by saying that issues are their primary purpose, not the election or defeat of a particular candidate

[on camera] How am I supposed to know, though, as a reasonably intelligent voter, what’s an issue ad and what’s a direct campaign “vote for this guy” ad? Because you look at them, and they look the same.

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: They look almost exactly the same.

KAI RYSSDAL: So how do I know?

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: So the key difference, or at least what outside groups have been falling back on as the key difference, are the use of the magic words. [laughter]

KAI RYSSDAL: I love that! Magic words.

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: Magic words.

KAI RYSSDAL: That’s not your invention, though. Where did that come from?

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: No. No. So that comes from a footnote in a Supreme Court decision in the l970s, in which the court speculated about the types of words that might most set apart election ads from pure issue ads.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] That footnote— it’s right here, number 52. Use these magic words— “vote for,” “vote against,” “elect,” “defeat,” and you’ve clearly got a campaign ad. Avoid the magic words and, some outside groups argue, you have an issue ad. Yeah, sometimes that distinction is hard to see.

[on camera] All right, so help me out. Show me. Because I watch a lot of political ads, and you can’t really tell. All right.

[voice-over] I asked Fowler to walk me through a 501(c)(4) ad, like the one that’s playing in Montana from Citizens for Strength and Security Fund.

ANNOUNCER: [CSSF television commercial] He’s one of the wealthiest members of Congress, a multi-millionaire. Dennis Rehberg billed taxpayers over $100,000 to lease an SUV.

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] All right, what is— yes, anti-Rehberg, but what does this have to do with the issue? What’s the—

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: So they actually haven’t gotten to it yet.

KAI RYSSDAL: OK. We’re a third of the way through, we’re halfway through a 30-second ad. [laughter]

ANNOUNCER: [CSSF television commercial] Rehberg promised he’d never support or take a pay raise, then voted five times—

KAI RYSSDAL: All right, wait a minute. They don’t like the SUVs. They don’t like the pay raise. And they don’t like the SUVs again. I’m still waiting for that issue.

ANNOUNCER: [CSSF television commercial] —and voted five times to raise his own pay, giving himself thousands more per year at our expense. To cut the deficit, tell Congressman Rehberg, cut the waste first. We need a balanced approach.

KAI RYSSDAL: Deficit, right? That’s cut the deficit.

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: Cut the deficit.

KAI RYSSDAL: So they didn’t say “vote for.” They didn’t say Rehberg for— or Tester for Congress, but they did say the word “deficit.”

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: They did say the word “deficit.”

KAI RYSSDAL: Bang! That’s an issue ad.

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: That’s an issue ad.

KAI RYSSDAL: OK, really?

Prof. ERIKA FRANKLIN FOWLER: By the magic word test, that would be an issue advocacy ad. Now, you and I both know that this ad is aired during an election cycle and is intended to help Jon Tester.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] I wanted to know more about the group that made this ad because you can’t tell much from its name, Citizens for Strength and Security Fund.

[on camera] So I went to their Web site, and here’s what I learned. They’re a 501(c)(4), a social welfare group. They’re an issues advocacy group. They tell me that a couple of times. But that’s it. There’s no people listed, there’s no address listed, there’s no phone number listed. They make it really hard to find out who they are.

The only way we know who they are and where they are is one piece of paper. It’s a thing from a media purchase and it lists some of the corporate officers, and then it gives the street address of Citizens for Strength and Security Fund.

It’s 1718 M Street NW Washington, D.C. This is M Street, 1708 on the left, 1718— which I don’t understand. All right, I’m going to go figure out what’s going on. [to cab driver] Sir, can you just wait here one second?

Oh! Oh, you know what it is. I know exactly what it is. Here’s what it is. It’s a box. Right? Has to be— 115— 115. So Citizens for Strength and Security Fund lives right here at this address.

[voice-over] Since there was nobody home, I went back to American Bridge, the super-PAC that does research for these 501(c)(4) ads.

[on camera] We actually tried to get ahold of them. We went to their Web site, can’t find anything. We did track down an address, which, as it turns out, is here in Washington, D.C. It’s— it’s not far from here, actually. It’s over on M Street, 1718 M Street, which is, as it turns out, a UPS store. And you go in and they’ve rented a mailbox there.

So I’m just trying to find the connection between the information you guys find and provide to groups like Citizens for Strength and Security Fund, which does not have to disclose its donors, and who when I try to go find them, I pull up in front of a UPS store.

Doesn’t that kind of make you go, “Wait. What?”

RODELL MOLLINEAU: No, actually, it doesn’t. And the reason why is— so listen, if it was up to me, I wouldn’t be doing this. There are a lot of other things I’d rather be doing. But I do believe in my Democratic candidates and I believe in Democratic causes. And I could play by one set of rules. I could play by the set of rules that says, “We’re going to do it like this because this is the way that we want it— want to do it,” and watch us lose even more seats in 2012.

Or I can fight and try to help elect as many Democrats as possible. And in doing so, I’m going to play with the rules that were given to me. If the rules were different, I’d play with those rules.

KAI RYSSDAL: So for you for now in this election cycle, secrecy and nondisclosure and obscure sources of money are OK.

RODELL MOLLINEAU: I’m going to play with the rules that are given to me, yes.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] If some see playing by the rules as a necessary evil, the man arguably most responsible for those rules is convinced they’re indispensable to democracy.

His name is Jim Bopp. He’s best known as the father of Citizens United. He’s been a leading force in the restructuring of campaign finance law.

I caught up with him at his office in Terre Haute, Indiana, and he told me why he believes secrecy is actually good for the political process.

JAMES BOPP, Campaign Finance Attorney: For people to participate in our democracy, citizens, they have to be able to talk about issues. And it’s very important that that be protected, and the 1st Amendment intended that that be protected.

If they can’t talk about issues because they’re afraid that the Federal Election Commission is going to investigate them or they’re going to be complained about, or they’re going to have to file a report, or they’re going to have to do this and do that, then they are driven out of our democracy.

KAI RYSSDAL: Bopp says disclosure laws keep people from participating in politics.

JAMES BOPP: Anonymity for citizens is a very important concept because people are very reticent to contribute to overtly political entities. Associating yourself with political causes is much more controversial than giving to the local hospital.

KAI RYSSDAL: Conservative political causes have been in his blood for a long time. Bopp got his start with the right to life movement in the 1970s, and he says he quickly learned an important lesson: Campaign finance laws were keeping conservative groups from getting their message out.

JAMES BOPP: So to defend them and to make sure that they can be effective means opposing those laws.

KAI RYSSDAL: Over the past 30 years, Jim Bopp has challenged more than 150 campaign finance laws. He’s won some of the biggest cases in the country.

JAMES BOPP: Campaign finance laws don’t do anything for citizens, other than stifle and limit them. The average voter could care less who’s, quote, “funding” a politician or—

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] Really?

JAMES BOPP: Of course!

KAI RYSSDAL: Do you think people should care about where this money’s coming from?

JAMES BOPP: Generally, no, because it’s the message. You know, you either buy the argument or don’t buy the argument. Generally, no, it doesn’t matter. Truth doesn’t change because of who’s funding it. John Gregg is either a pro-life or not. What difference does it make who’s funding that?

KAI RYSSDAL: Should citizens in this country be able to find that information? Should they be able to learn who’s funding?

JAMES BOPP: Not generally. They don’t care.

KAI RYSSDAL: That’s not the question. Just because they don’t care doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to know, right?

JAMES BOPP: No. Well, I’m sorry. Well, then, are you’re just patronizing them? You—

KAI RYSSDAL: No, I—

JAMES BOPP: —you know, that they— you know, Sorry, you ignorant Hoosiers. You should know— you should want to know this. Well, actually—

KAI RYSSDAL: Mr. Bopp—

JAMES BOPP: Actually, they could care less—

KAI RYSSDAL: You’re the one who said—

JAMES BOPP: —because it’s not relevant to them.

KAI RYSSDAL: What does that say about democracy, though?

JAMES BOPP: It says that this is completely irrelevant information that only some left-wing nutjobs care about. That’s the bottom line.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] I wanted to find out what the folks in Montana thought of that. You don’t need to spend a lot of time here to find people who are independent-minded and people who are concerned.

JOYCE ALMY: We don’t need secrecy and we don’t need all this additional money coming in and coming in secretly, no. I feel like somebody is buying the state out. The people of the state don’t have control of what’s going on, and I think that’s absolutely wrong.

WILLIAM ALMY: Well, it’s our state. We don’t have to be told by people from all over the country what to do. We can handle it.

KAI RYSSDAL: This aversion to outside money and influence has deep roots in this state. It goes back to the late 1800s, the Gilded Age, when the mines of Montana were turning copper into gold for the great industrialists of that era.

[on camera] All right, so this is the William Clark mansion, which kind of gets you to the question of, “Who was William Clark”?

[voice-over] Local political reporter Chuck Johnson told me about William Clark.

CHUCK JOHNSON, Montana Political Reporter: He was one of the wealthiest men in America. He got most of his money from copper mining. He bought a railroad. He had other businesses. He also bought himself a seat in the U.S. Senate.

KAI RYSSDAL: How?

CHUCK JOHNSON: He bribed state legislators. In those days, legislators picked the U.S. senators, not the voters.

KAI RYSSDAL: Are we talking bags of cash bribes to the legislators?

CHUCK JOHNSON: Yeah.

KAI RYSSDAL: And that was all undisclosed cash, right?

CHUCK JOHNSON: Well, it got—

KAI RYSSDAL: Or did— or did people know where it was coming from?

CHUCK JOHNSON: They knew where it was coming from. The envelopes had his initials on it.

KAI RYSSDAL: No!

CHUCK JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah.

KAI RYSSDAL: That’s— that’s just gutsy.

CHUCK JOHNSON: That’s right.

KAI RYSSDAL: What happens, though, back here in Montana after all that?

CHUCK JOHNSON: Well, among other things, the people adopt an initiative called the Corrupt Practices Act in 1912. And this is in direct reaction to the— to the corruption in the political system. It banned corporations from giving money to campaigns and it also required disclosure who gave to campaigns.

KAI RYSSDAL: Right.

CHUCK JOHNSON: William Clark, you might say he was first super-PAC. [laughter]

KAI RYSSDAL: The state of Montana kept its ban on corporate campaign spending for 100 years. And in the process, it built up some of the toughest campaign finance laws in the country.

[voice-over] But of course, there were people who didn’t agree with the laws and wanted to get around them. One such effort came to light four years ago. To find out what happened, I went to meet a man on Pothole Drive.

JOHN WARD, former MT State Rep.: We’re the biggest in the area, yeah.

KAI RYSSDAL: John Ward owns Lil’ John’s Septic Service on the outskirts of Helena. He’s a Republican. He’s a Navy veteran. He’d been elected to the Montana legislature in 2004.

JOHN WARD: This district actually encompasses this side of the valley, north—

KAI RYSSDAL: He showed me around. And he told me about the surprise he ran into during his 2008 campaign.

JOHN WARD: I knew that I was going to have opposition, but I had no concept whatsoever of the— the power and viciousness.

KAI RYSSDAL: In the Republican primary that year, Ward faced a conservative challenger with little political experience, a guy named Mike Miller.

JOHN WARD: He wasn’t a good campaigner. He was afraid of people, you know, and he wouldn’t appear at places.

KAI RYSSDAL: And then just days before the primary, Ward’s district was blitzed with mailers from a bunch of outside groups attacking him.

JOHN WARD: Here it is.

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] Wow. “John Ward voted with criminal-coddling liberal activists.” “Are high energy prices killing you?” “John Ward had a choice.” Instead, you raised their taxes. “Mothers Against Child Predators”— “certified to be true and accurate.” Wow.

JOHN WARD: Well, yeah, you can say anything you want.

KAI RYSSDAL: So these went out a week before the election.

JOHN WARD: Less than that, within the last four days. You have no time to respond that way.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] Ward lost that primary to Mike Miller by just 24 votes.

CHUCK JOHNSON, Montana Political Reporter: It was one of the biggest shockers of the primary election that year because he was thought to be in safe shape politically, a conservative Republican, but got picked off by these groups.

JOHN WARD: The impact of— of receiving these graphic things right before you went to the polls— it was very, very effective.

KAI RYSSDAL: John Ward wasn’t alone. These kinds of flyers started to show up in mailboxes all across Montana in 2008. It was something new. The tone and the tactics rubbed some people the wrong way, and a complaint was filed that soon led to an investigation.

What nobody could foresee, though, was that these mailers were about to start a fight that, in time, would go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and actually challenge Citizens United.

DENNIS UNSWORTH, Fmr. MT Commissioner of Political Practices: They caught our attention because of the unusual art.

KAI RYSSDAL: Dennis Unsworth was the commissioner of political practices, the agency responsible for enforcing Montana’s campaign finance laws.

DENNIS UNSWORTH: These groups are names that we hadn’t heard.

KAI RYSSDAL: His job was to figure out who was behind the mailers and whether somebody was violating Montana’s strict anti-corruption laws.

DENNIS UNSWORTH: It’s not clear where they come from. We’ve got two different organizations named here. This one included a Bozeman address. I believe on one, there was a Colorado address. And it just wasn’t clear where this information was coming from. And so just as an initial step, I sent them a letter.

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] To this group, Western Tradition Partnership?

DENNIS UNSWORTH: Yes.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] Western Tradition Partnership, or WTP, as it’s known, is a 501(c)(4) issue group that popped up in Montana four years ago. It bills itself as hard-hitting and pro-growth.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: If radical environmentalists have their way, I’ll be taking cold showers in the dark! That’s why I joined Western Tradition.

KAI RYSSDAL: Its stated goal is advancing reasonable resource development. Its stated target is radical environmentalists.

TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: I’m Kate, and I approved this message.

KAI RYSSDAL: So what Unsworth wanted to know was whether WTP had crossed the line from issues advocacy into clear-cut campaign activities.

DENNIS UNSWORTH: I wrote to Western Tradition Partnership at an address in Colorado, got a response back that said, one, “We didn’t have anything to do with this, even though our name was on it,” but two, essentially, “This is none of your business and so this does not come under your jurisdiction.”

JAMES BROWN, Outside Counsel, WTP: The primary purpose of WTP is not to engage in political campaigning.

KAI RYSSDAL: Jim Brown is WTP’s outside counsel.

JAMES BROWN: They’re an issue advocacy group and they’re allowed to engage in lobbying. And as such, they don’t need to register their activities with the state of Montana.

KAI RYSSDAL: But as Unsworth dug deeper, he began to suspect that the different groups on the mailers weren’t really that different at all.

DENNIS UNSWORTH: The common denominator appeared to be a chap named of Christian Lefer. Christian Lefer had signed some of the paperwork. His name appeared on some of the paperwork.

CHRISTIAN LEFER VIDEO: My name is Christian Lefer. I’m the creator of Getnonprofitstatus.com and the nonprofit launch kit.

KAI RYSSDAL: Lefer come to Montana back in the mid-2000s to work on conservative causes. He turned out eventually to be the director of strategy for WTP. But when Unsworth tried to learn more about Lefer and WTP’s activities, he had trouble getting answers. Until he got a big break.

DENNIS UNSWORTH: We came across what I’d call a friendly witness, someone who was directly involved, appeared to have been directly involved in the activity, who became dissatisfied and had some materials, some documents.

KAI RYSSDAL: Karolin Loendorf was hired by Christian Lefer to work for WTP in early 2010. She’d been a county commissioner. She was active in local Republican politics.

KAROLIN LOENDORF: Well, in the beginning, I was kind of confused because I wasn’t sure where they were heading. I had some red flags that would come up, and I just kind of was playing it out, trying to feel out where WTP really was. Things were kind of secretive in ways, and that bothered me.

KAI RYSSDAL: I met Loendorf at a cafe in Helena, where we went over some of the documents that she had given to Unsworth.

[on camera] How long did it take to realize that something was different?

KAROLIN LOENDORF: It took a good month. But when I find out that there’s a P.O. box in Helena, there’s P.O. boxes in Livingston, there’s P.O. boxes in Bozeman, there’s P.O. boxes in Denver, there’s P.O. boxes in Longmont— that’s not normal.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] And then, Loendorf says, she discovered what WTP was really all about.

KAROLIN LOENDORF: It wasn’t until I went into the winter— the Republican winter kick-off in 2010 when I found out a couple of my favorite legislators were on their hit list.

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] On their hit list?

KAROLIN LOENDORF: And that bothered me.

KAI RYSSDAL: So that is— so this is an issues group, a 501(c)(4), with a candidate hit list.

KAROLIN LOENDORF: Correct. And when I found out what WTP was really all about, and if you don’t vote the way that they wanted you to vote in the legislature or the county or the city, they would be there to replace you.

KAI RYSSDAL: I want to make sure I understand this. This is a 501(c)(4) social welfare group—

KAROLIN LOENDORF: Correct.

KAI RYSSDAL: —with specific candidates—

KAROLIN LOENDORF: Correct.

KAI RYSSDAL: —that it wanted to target and recruiting specific candidates to promote its agenda.

KAROLIN LOENDORF: Correct.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] She showed me how they did it.

[on camera] I want to flip to the last page.

[voice-over] WTP had a plan, a plan to raise and spend more than a half a million dollars on Montana state races. To make that happen, they had a secret fund-raising script for Loendorf and others to use on prospective donors.

That script went like this.

KAROLIN LOENDORF: We’re a 501(c)(4) organization.

KAI RYSSDAL: And—

KAROLIN LOENDORF: Corporate contributions are completely legal under this program.

KAI RYSSDAL: And—

KAROLIN LOENDORF: There’s no limit to how much you can give.

KAI RYSSDAL: And most important—

KAROLIN LOENDORF: It’s confidential. We’re not required to report the name or the amount of any contribution that we receive.

KAI RYSSDAL: So if you decide to support the program—

KAROLIN LOENDORF: No politician, no bureaucrat or no radical environmentalist will ever know you helped make this program possible. You can just sit back on election night and see what a difference you’ve made.

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] Nobody’s going to know, please give us money.

KAROLIN LOENDORF: Correct.

[voice-over] Those documents were all that Dennis Unsworth needed to see.

DENNIS UNSWORTH: They were offering to help people get involved in campaigns without limits, not disclosing who they are, operating from the shadows, spending as much money as they wanted to spend to influence campaigns, unregulated. That’s what it told me as commissioner of political practices, is that they were selling illegal practice, essentially.

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] “No politician, no bureaucrat and no radical environmentalist will ever know that you helped make this program possible. You can just sit back on election night and see what a difference you’ve made.” Does that sound like campaign activity to you?

JAMES BROWN, Outside Counsel, WTP: However you want to characterize it. The statement’s true because this is part of a larger debate that’s going on on the national level.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] That debate he’s talking about is the old eight magic words defense. By avoiding phrases like “vote for” and “elect,” groups like WTP say they’re not campaigning at all. They’re just talking about issues.

JAMES BROWN: And it is permissible, both under federal law, and most importantly, under constitutional principles, 1st Amendment principles, that if you engage in discussing issues, you do not have to disclose who your donors are and you do not have to register your activities with any commissioner of political practices or the FEC.

KAI RYSSDAL: That argument didn’t wash with Dennis Unsworth. A number of courts have rejected that narrow “eight magic words” test and some states, including Montana, take a broader view of what defines campaigning.

DENNIS UNSWORTH: These are campaign materials. There’s no question about their involvement in campaign activity. Absolutely no question.

JAMES BROWN: The commissioner handed down a ruling accusing WTP of engaging in all sorts of wrongdoing. In my opinion, that was designed to basically punish the organization for engaging in 1st Amendment speech. And so WTP didn’t stand back and just take it. Basically, they said, “All right, if you’re going to try to regulate us under unconstitutional laws, then we’re going to challenge those laws.”

KAI RYSSDAL: And they did. WTP sued to strike down Montana’s 100-year-old Corrupt Practices Act.

[on camera] This was a case that you argued personally.

[voice-over] Steve Bullock is the state attorney general.

[on camera] What does this case mean, though, for Montana specifically?

STEVE BULLOCK, MT Attorney General: It was over 100 years ago. It was l906, in a local newspaper that said the greatest living issue confronting us today is whether the corporations shall control the people or the people shall control the corporations.

We did have a history of, really, corporate dominance in all of our electoral processes, and Montanans took it back. It was average people that came together and said, “No, we want to make sure that individuals are deciding who represents us and not large interests.”

COURT OFFICIAL: —Western Tradition Partnership versus attorney general of the state of Montana—

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] What the case turned into, though, was Montana openly challenging the U.S. Supreme Court over Citizens United. Remember, Citizens allowed outside groups to spend unlimited amounts of money independent of candidates. The court said outside spending does not corrupt. Bullock disagreed.

STEVE BULLOCK: Independent expenditures would corrupt, and we certainly have a history— I mean, the whole reason why the Corrupt Practices Act was passed by citizens’ initiative in 1912 was because of corporate corruption.

KAI RYSSDAL: Some of the Montana justices were skeptical.

JAMES NELSON, MT Supreme Court Justice: On what legal basis can we simply ignore Citizens United on the premise that Montana got it right and the Supreme Court got it wrong?

KAI RYSSDAL: What happened next was kind of a surprise…

NEWSCASTER: The Montana supreme court is upholding a 1912 law stating corporations cannot spend money to influence elections.

KAI RYSSDAL: Bullock had beaten back WTP. He won the case, which wasn’t supposed to happen. States aren’t supposed to contradict the U.S. Supreme Court.

TREVOR POTTER, Fmr. Chairman, Federal Election Commission: The Montana case was a direct challenge to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United. It was unusual because it was a state supreme court saying, “You need to think about this again. We think you’ve made a mistake, at least as it affects our laws in Montana.”

KAI RYSSDAL: There was, of course, one man who didn’t think the court had made a mistake with Citizens United. He’s got a different view of money and politics.

[on camera] Is money in politics inherently corrupting?

JAMES BOPP: Definitely not. It doesn’t corrupt the process, it’s necessary for the process. To communicate, you have to spend money. So you have to have money to communicate. The problem that we have is we have— we don’t have enough information available to voters to allow them to make informed choices. So we need more spending.

KAI RYSSDAL: You think there’s not enough information out there in American politics?

JAMES BOPP: The majority of people do not now who their congressman is or who their senators are. So you think that’s enough information? No, that’s not enough information. They need a lot more information.

[www.pbs.org: More from Bopp]

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] Bopp took the Montana case right to the U.S. Supreme Court. There was a lot on the line for both sides.

STEVE BULLOCK: This to me was really about the last 100 years and what kind of system we ended up developing, but also the next 100 years.

KAI RYSSDAL: It would take six months for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

NEWSCASTER: —bring you an update on another developing story, high court doubling down in Citizens United—

NEWSCASTER: The Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Citizens United.

KAI RYSSDAL: They did so in a single paragraph, without a hearing, refusing to reconsider Citizens United. Bopp had won again.

TREVOR POTTER: The Supreme Court majority is not ready, I think, to look at whether they were wrong about the potential for corruption by independent spending. That’s— that’s the immediate takeaway from Montana.

[www.pbs.org: Watch on line]

KAI RYSSDAL: Legal theories are one thing, political realities are another, which makes this the point where the story of WTP gets really interesting, where we get back to the boxes from Colorado.

[on camera] Remember the boxes, the ones found in that crazy drug house in Denver and sent up to Montana? Well, this is where they came, the commissioner of political practices.

[voice-over] Turns out that those boxes had some suspicious WTP files in them. But they came five months after the state had finished its investigation into WTP.

JULIE STEAB, Investigator, Comm. of Political Practices: They were mailed to me unsolicited, and they all relate to Western Tradition Partnership.

KAI RYSSDAL: What investigator Julie Steab discovered inside the boxes made her wonder whether WTP as an outside group was working directly with candidates— in other words, coordinating.

JULIE STEAB: One file that caught my attention is one that’s labeled “wife letters” in this folder. When I first saw it, I had no idea what it meant. For example, this first letter on top is from Pam Butcher, and her husband Ed was a candidate in 2008.

KAI RYSSDAL: These wife letters were sent to voters just before election day.

[on camera] OK, wait. Hold on. Joanne Miller and Pam Butcher in their signatures have the same handwriting.

JULIE STEAB: Uh-huh.

[www.pbs.org: Read the letters]

KAI RYSSDAL: Wow. But as you read into these things— I mean, look at this, right? “Ed and I first met on a blind date.” This is Pam Butcher— “first met on a blind date neither of us wanted, that was arranged by one of his friends,” blah, blah, blah. “It was the fall of 1962.” How does whoever wrote this, assuming it’s not Pam Butcher, know all that stuff?

[voice-over] The answer seemed to be in another folder.

JULIE STEAB: It’s called a wife questionnaire and it’s filled out by Pam Butcher. “How did you and your husband meet?” And it says, “We met on a blind date.”

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] “Ed and I met on a blind date.”

JULIE STEAB: “Arranged by his buddy, that neither of us wanted.”

KAI RYSSDAL: “That neither of us wanted.”

JULIE STEAB: “I was a freshman at Eastern Montana College ”

KAI RYSSDAL: “And it was his second year.”

JULIE STEAB: Second year in the fall of 1962.

KAI RYSSDAL: Fall of 1962. We’ve got stacks of these.

JULIE STEAB: Stacks. Some are pink, some are purple, some are white, some are blue.

KAI RYSSDAL: If there are wife questionnaires, are there candidate questionnaires?

JULIE STEAB: Yes, I did find those.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] There was one questionnaire that was full of detailed information about a candidate that WTP was backing.

JULIE STEAB: This one has what is a subject candidate questionnaire, a lot more detailed than the wife questionnaire.

KAI RYSSDAL: And look at this. It’s a questionnaire apparently filled out by Republican Mike Miller. Mike Miller’s the challenger who narrowly beat John Ward in the 2008 primary. You remember Ward, right? He was the candidate on Pothole Drive who was targeted by the attack mailers just days before the primary.

[on camera] “How much time will you be able to spend campaigning?” So this is wanting to know, “If we invest in you”—

JULIE STEAB: “How much time can you give us?”

KAI RYSSDAL: “How much are we going to get out of you,” yeah.

JULIE STEAB: Right. He has no previous appointed political position. Political involvement, basically none. Political fund-raising experience, none.

KAI RYSSDAL: So what does this tell you, all this, you know, none, none, none? What does that mean?

JULIE STEAB: Well, this information is important to me specifically because this is an inexperienced candidate who beat John Ward, with no experience going into the campaign.

KAI RYSSDAL, APM’s Marketplace: [on the phone] Hi, I’m looking for Mike Miller, please.

[voice-over] I tried to talk to Mike Miller about the help he may have gotten from WTP.

[on camera] It’d be real important in this story to have your side of it.

[voice-over] But he wouldn’t talk to us on camera.

[on camera] All right, sir. Thank you. Bye-bye now.

[voice-over] But we did find another candidate whose name also appeared in the files. It’s the guy who met his wife on a blind date, Ed Butcher.

[on camera] We’ve gotten some boxes of documents full of WTP papers, in which you and your wife have some files.

ED BUTCHER: Have some what?

KAI RYSSDAL: Have some files. OK?

ED BUTCHER: OK.

KAI RYSSDAL: Let me show you what I’m talking about. So there’s a questionnaire here filled out by Pam Butcher, who’ your wife.

ED BUTCHER: Yeah.

KAI RYSSDAL: Asking things like, “How did you and your husband meet? How many kids do you have? What are their names and ages? What church do you attend?” So this is WTP working with your campaign.

ED BUTCHER: Not to my knowledge. It was WTP— it might have.

KAI RYSSDAL: Working with your wife, for sure.

ED BUTCHER: It could have been Christian.

KAI RYSSDAL: Christian—

CHRISTIAN LEFER VIDEO: My name is Christian Lefer—

KAI RYSSDAL: —as in Christian Lefer from WTP.

ED BUTCHER: It’s very possible in that primary, that when she was trying to write this letter, that she could have very easily have run it by him. He may have asked, “Do you need any help,” and she said, “Yeah, I need to get this family letter out.” So it’s very possible there could have been a little bit of that. But as far as him being involved in the campaign to any degree— you know, basically, I was running the campaign.

KAI RYSSDAL: Well, but helping your wife and helping to do communications with potential voters is not, in your mind, helping a campaign?

ED BUTCHER: Well, it would be. Yeah. Yeah. It would be. I mean, there could be some of that going on.

KAI RYSSDAL: Right.

JULIE STEAB: In here, we have what I call the candidates’ signatures. So here we have Mike Miller.

KAI RYSSDAL: [on camera] From the John Ward race, and it’s clearly a photocopy.

JULIE STEAB: Right. This is one from Wesley Prouse. And it actually was cut from this page, which was faxed to Christian Lefer, same fax number.

KAI RYSSDAL: Same number, yeah.

JULIE STEAB: So this fits, I believe. And as I went through this, it became clear that these signatures are being pasted onto the candidate letters. For example, Mike Miller’s wasn’t signed—

KAI RYSSDAL: Ah!

JULIE STEAB: —and this signature matches exactly on the signed letter that was mailed out to voters.

KAI RYSSDAL: Connect the dots for me then. How does this work?

JULIE STEAB: My guess, as best as I can figure, is WTP determines which candidates they want to support in the election and who’s going to promote their interests. They then have someone internally writing the wife letters. They have someone internally generating the candidate letters. They get the signatures to put on the letters. And they do mass, mass mailings.

KAI RYSSDAL: And the conclusion you draw is?

JULIE STEAB: My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that WTP was running a lot of these campaigns.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] I wanted to get another opinion, so I took the documents to Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

[on camera] So the question is, what does this lead you to believe?

TREVOR POTTER: It would suggest if they’re sending this questionnaire around to candidates and then producing these letters, that they have a direct role in these candidate communications. This is the sort of information that is, in fact, campaign strategy, campaign plans that candidates cannot share with an outside group without making it coordinated.

KAI RYSSDAL: And just to be clear, that’s a big no-no.

TREVOR POTTER: Right. You’d need to know more, but certainly, if I were back in my FEC days as a commissioner, I would say we had grounds to proceed with an investigation and put people under oath and show them these documents and ask where they came from and where they were.

KAI RYSSDAL: Makes you want to know more.

TREVOR POTTER: Yes.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] We contacted several individuals who are involved with WTP, including Christian Lefer.

[on the phone] Hi. I’m looking for Christian Lefer, please. It’s Kai Ryssdal from FRONTLINE. Is this Mr. Lefer?

[voice-over] None of them would give FRONTLINE an on-camera interview.

[on the phone] Hello? Hello? Hello?

[voice-over] So,I showed the documents to their outside counsel.

[on camera] We have boxes and folders full of candidates’ signatures being faxed to WTP. And the question, once you’ve had a chance to think about this for a second, is why would these documents, which appear to show campaign activity, be included in boxes full of WTP materials?

JAMES BROWN, Outside Counsel, WTP: The answer is, is that I’ve never seen this material before. I don’t know if this was found in WTP materials. I’m not going to comment because I haven’t reviewed any of that material. I mean, I’m not going to, you know, have materials sent— you know, given to me on surprise and then asked to comment on them. I don’t know what they show or what they don’t show. I’m literally not going to comment on that. You can rely on your other sources for those.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] Until WTP answers the questions that these documents raise, it’s impossible to know exactly what the group has been up to. But what’s amazing is that this was the group that convinced the U.S. Supreme Court it didn’t need to take a second look at Citizens United.

[on camera] There’s a little bit of irony, right, in these documents being about WTP and WTP being the group at the center of this case, the Supreme Court case.

TREVOR POTTER: Right, because what the majority of the justices said is, “We don’t have any evidence that there’s anything corrupting about independent spending. We have no reason to change our mind based on the Montana case.” Well—

KAI RYSSDAL: Turns out maybe.

TREVOR POTTER: Here you’re looking at something that may, in fact, not be independent at all. And this is exactly the sort of thing that people have been trying to argue to the Supreme Court that this so called independent spending is not really independent.

KAI RYSSDAL: All right, something to tell you about Western Tradition Partnership. They have gone national and they’ve changed their name. It’s called American Tradition Partnership, ATP, and they have an office right here in Washington, D.C. It is on Pennsylvania Avenue.

All right, you’ve got to have a look at this.

[voice-over] It’s just a P.O. box. ATP says they’re working in more than a half a dozen states now. And the way things are going, they’re going to have a lot of company.

[on camera] What’s the logical extension of these issue advocacy groups, the 501(c)(4)s, not being regulated? Is there a finite, natural conclusion?

JAMES BOPP: Yes, there’ll be more of them. They’ll be more active. They will be able to speak more. They’ll have more money to speak.

KAI RYSSDAL: Does democracy get better? Does our government— does this country work better when that happens?

JAMES BOPP: Definitely.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] The Supreme Court has sided with Jim Bopp. But it’s not so clear-cut back here in Montana, where the real world of politics comes home to Pothole Drive and John Ward.

[on camera] Do you think the Supreme Court understands politics and the actual mechanics of it?

JOHN WARD: Well, to a certain extent, but not— not in the nitty-gritty. No, I don’t think they do. I don’t think they understand the realities of it. I wouldn’t say they’re clueless, but they certainly don’t live in the same world as the rest of us.

KAI RYSSDAL: [voice-over] It’s a world where campaigns can look a lot like this. The Montana Senate race has become the most expensive in state history, more advertising than any Senate race in the country. Much of the money is coming from outside groups, and much of that undisclosed.

TREVOR POTTER: The game that’s being played here is how to spend money to affect elections without having to disclose where the money is coming from.

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s estimated that $9 billion will be spent on elections across the country this year. The vast majority of those elections are going to be state and local. And that is where Citizens United may well have its greatest impact.

Prof. DAVID PARKER, Montana State University: Voters have far less information at these local elections. There’s a lot less money that’s being spent on these elections already, so if you have a big gorilla come into town and drop a lot of cash— let’s say $100,000, $200,000 in that race— I think the effect there could be much more tremendous than at the federal level.

KAI RYSSDAL: But how big an effect is hard to know because, as we found out, out in big sky country, big money has a way of staying out of sight.

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