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Secretive Conservative Group Appears Ready to Vanish

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- 1965 days ago -
After four years spent dumping candidate attack ads on Montana elections and leading high-profile challenges to state campaign laws, a secretive conservative organization looks as if it may simply vanish.

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JL A (281)
Tuesday January 29, 2013, 1:54 pm
Secretive conservative group appears ready to vanish

James Brown

Associated Press

American Tradition Partnership attorney James Brown speaks to Helena protesters angry with his client's anonymous political spending in fall of 2012.

January 22, 2013 3:22 pm • Associated Press

HELENA — After four years spent dumping candidate attack ads on Montana elections and leading high-profile challenges to state campaign laws, a secretive conservative organization looks as if it may simply vanish.

American Tradition Partnership, which is registered as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) nonprofit social-welfare organization, will continue to exist as a legal entity, but, as for operations, "that's in flux," said the group's Montana attorney James Brown.

"The 501(c)(4) is not active at this point. I can say that with some clarity," Brown said.

It would be a whimper of an exit for a group that has influenced the upheaval of Montana election laws and spent years tying up state and federal courts with litigation.

The group, through Brown, argued vehemently in its lawsuits that its campaign spending was free speech, while fighting just as hard to keep its donors and spending a secret.

That secrecy ultimately may have been the group's undoing.

A state judge ruled this month that ATP acted as a political committee that must report its spending and donors and is not the purely educational organization that it claims to be.

And, in December, state officials revealed that a federal investigation into ATP is under way when they disclosed that a federal grand jury had subpoenaed stolen records that the organization was fighting to reclaim.

The documents were featured in an October documentary by "Frontline" and in a story by ProPublica suggesting the group coordinated with Republican candidates. Livingston consultant Christian LeFer, who has ties to ATP, says the documents were stolen in Denver in 2010.

ATP's only staff member, executive director Donny Ferguson, resigned this month to take a job as a staff member for newly elected U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas.

While discussing scheduling for one of the group's lawsuits with state attorneys on Tuesday, Brown hinted that his own status with ATP might change. He declined to say that he would no longer represent the group.

"At this point, I'm still their attorney," Brown said.

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry said he was not surprised that ATP may be fading away.

"Indications have been that ATP was virtually falling apart," Murry said. "There is no one left to mind the store. The significant thing is the corporate veil has been pierced by Judge Sherlock's order."

Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled this month that ATP acted as a political committee that violated state campaign-finance laws and used its corporate status to avoid compliance with those laws. The judge had expressed frustration over the group's repeated failure to turn over records and documents about the organization as part of the lawsuit it filed against the state.

Sherlock's ruling upheld a 2010 commissioner of political practices decision on a complaint over the group's mailing of attack ads denouncing candidates in the 2008 election. ATP — then called Western Tradition Partnership — challenged that decision in court.

Now, that two-year legal fight is nearly over. The other two plaintiffs plan to withdraw from the case, leaving only ATP, Brown said.

State attorney Michael Black said he plans to move forward with a request that Sherlock penalize the group.

But, if Sherlock decides to fine the organization, who from ATP is left to pay it?

"The question is, how do you collect?" Brown said.

ATP led the charge against a state ban on some corporate spending that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling its 2010 Citizens United decision extends to state elections.

In another case brought by ATP, a federal judge ruled two accountability campaign laws were unconstitutional. One required campaign attack ads to list the voting records on which the information in the ad is based, and the other was a ban on making knowingly false statements in such ads.

U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell also ruled that the state's campaign contribution limits are unconstitutional, a decision that may have influenced the outcome of the 2012 governor's election.

In the six-day window between Lovell's decision and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstating those limits, Republican candidate Rick Hill accepted a $500,000 donation from the state GOP.

That donation became a major focal point in the final weeks of the campaign, ending with Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock winning by a slim margin.

The case challenging campaign contribution limits is pending before the 9th Circuit. Brown said there are many other plaintiffs, so the case can continue even if ATP is no longer involved.

ATP has a separate arm registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Brown said, which is different from a 501(c)(4). A 501(c)(3), which is meant for religious, charitable or educational organizations, can't be involved in campaign activities, can't support candidates and is limited in political lobbying.


David C (29)
Tuesday January 29, 2013, 1:55 pm
simply vanish, or just hide in the dark, waiting for the right time to jump out again??????

Past Member (0)
Tuesday January 29, 2013, 2:16 pm
Evil things have a way of slithering back into the darkness whenever they are exposed. We have to know who the members of this organization are and how to confront them for the crimes they commit against the American people.

Elle B (84)
Tuesday January 29, 2013, 2:28 pm
Ty JL ~ Start with the KOCHtapus and John Birch current and original founders' decendents' orgs, foundations, et al - quite the intentional poli-socio-economic web--you will soon see who is funding what and where if you do your homework accurately. . .

JL A (281)
Tuesday January 29, 2013, 3:28 pm
Some great comments! Star headed your way Elle, but unfortunately :You cannot currently send a star to David because you have done so within the last week. You cannot currently send a star to Brian because you have done so within the last week.

Past Member (0)
Tuesday January 29, 2013, 3:33 pm
Is this what they call the american taliban or the 4th reich? So many nazi's to get on the run.

The people's police force has a nice ring to it.

Joanne Dixon (38)
Tuesday January 29, 2013, 4:56 pm
Many of you probably also got this email:

Dear Joanne,

You're receiving this email because late last year you signed our joint petition with Free Speech For People calling on the Department of Justice to investigate American Tradition Partnership (ATP) for lying to the IRS about its political activities. [ To unsubscribe from any future mailings from us, click here. ]

I wanted to take a moment to update you on the latest outrageous — but all-too-common — activity by this dark money front group.

In the wake of revelations that ATP attempted to influence the 2012 elections, a Montana state judge ruled ATP had ultimately operated as a political action committee and, under state law, was therefore required to disclose its donors and spending. An attorney for the state is moving to fine the non-profit for its illegal conduct, but soon there may not be anyone left to hold accountable.

The Associated Press revealed ATP is attempting to shut its doors and disappear before paying the price for its illegal attempts to influence elections.

This is not the first time we’ve seen this type of political hit and run by dark money 501(c)(4) groups in the three years since the disastrous Citizens United decision. For example, in 2010, the Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity violated the law and then, faced with multiple IRS and FEC complaints, disbanded. Unlimited secret spending cannot be the status quo, and we are continuing to lead the fight for transparency in our elections.

Earlier this month, I testified in support of new regulations proposed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that would require greater transparency from dark money groups like ATP that spend $10,000 or more on state elections. As these groups increasingly turn their focus to state and judicial elections, it is essential that we pull back the curtain on individuals and corporations trying to buy our elections under cover of darkness.

We at CREW are working hard to build a better Washington, I hope you'll continue to stand with us as we keep the pressure on those trying to corrupt our democracy.

Thank you,

Melanie Sloan
Executive Director, CREW

Joanne Dixon (38)
Tuesday January 29, 2013, 5:11 pm
This story had better make the front page. It sums up everything we are fighting against. (I do love the judge's name though. How appropriate.)

Judy C (97)
Tuesday January 29, 2013, 9:34 pm
This story is very informative about this organization of scoundrels, American Tradition Partnership. It shows how sick our system is. These guys are so blatant in their activities, and then they can just scatter like cockroaches when the lights comes on. No one is left to face any consequences. Money and power are one and the same in our system , especially since Citizens United. I wonder how much money laundering goes on in this type of organization. It seems like a great setup for that sort of thing. I don't know if it is naive to believe that there is any hope of transparency in our political system any more.

JL A (281)
Tuesday January 29, 2013, 9:37 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Judy because you have done so within the last week.

Lynn Squance (235)
Wednesday January 30, 2013, 12:16 am
Interesting isn't it that law makers and law interpreters (judges) are making it so much easier for law breakers.

I believe it was Montana that had a 100 year old state law restricting the amount of political donations and spending. The the Republican/Teabagger affiliates worked to have that overthrown so they could work their dastardly deeds. The state had passed that law in recognition of the corrupting influence of money. How prophetic.

paul m (93)
Wednesday January 30, 2013, 4:07 am

But still being paid..??

. (0)
Wednesday January 30, 2013, 6:37 am
I think legislation governing who gets 501 status needs to be addressed. There are too many international firms and nations using straw man companies to launder and obfuscate campaign contributions which affect the election's outcome. This subsequently impacts what laws are passed and which are voided to allow for maximum benefit to insider cronies; lobbyists and international financiers, i.e. Glass-Steagall.
Even the churches and other religious organizations are guilty of this. It needs to be stopped.

JL A (281)
Wednesday January 30, 2013, 7:44 am
You cannot currently send a star to Lynn because you have done so within the last week.
You cannot currently send a star to Michael because you have done so within the last week.

Dianna M (16)
Wednesday January 30, 2013, 2:16 pm
Cockroaches scurry to hide when you turn the lights on, don't they?

But they're still there, lurking . . .

JL A (281)
Wednesday January 30, 2013, 2:33 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Dianna because you have done so within the last week.

Devon Leonar (54)
Thursday January 31, 2013, 1:10 am
Extremism in all it's forms is dangerous. Just because the Ku Klux Klan shed their sheets (cowards cloaks) doesnt mean they vanished either....... Vigilance is wise.

Ro H (0)
Friday February 1, 2013, 5:05 am

JL A (281)
Friday February 1, 2013, 7:38 am
You're welcome Ro
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