PAC-ing the Mailbox

By Beacon Staff

Don’t you wonder who sent you all that election junk mail this year? Groups you’ve never heard of? Will never hear from again? Me too.

Until 2006, requesting hard copies of campaign paperwork from the Montana Commission for Political Practices, an expensive pain, was the only option for the curious and annoyed. Now, we can go to the Commission Web site (http://politicalpractices.mt.gov/default.mcpx) and try their new “searchable database.”

The new site is an improvement from the Stone Age, but many scans are atrocious, barely readable, scanned upside down and sideways. Still, they’re educational.

This cycle, I got several “Democratsarebums” mailings from the so-called “Jobs For Montana PAC” – run by GOP operative Chuck Denowh. It was financed by a string of other Montana pro-business PAC’s, such as the Motor Transportation PAC, Contractors PAC, Montanans for Affordable Housing PAC – basically the usual PACs operating out of Helena, doing their usual PAC thing, writing big checks to PAC our mailboxes. Not very creative.

I did get to see some real creative financing, though. The Committee for Clean Water (CCW), which sponsored the losing $10 million open-space bond, was plenty creative.

In late August, shortly after the Commissioners approved the ballot question, CCW had $650 from four people. As of October 18, this PAC had pulled down $51,565 and spent about $30,000.

CCW’s 56 individual supporters gave a total of $22,390. Milt Carlson and Michael Shaw shared individual honors at $5,000 each. The average for the rest is $210 per person.

More amusing were the “incidental committee” funds: Montana Land Reliance, $5,000; Flathead Trout Unlimited, $1,000; Flathead Farmers Union, $1,000; and The Conservation Campaign (Boston, Mass.), $10,000.

In case you’re wondering why a Massachusetts group wrote a Montana political committee’s biggest check, well, they’re an IRS 501c4 affiliate of the Trust for Public Land, that specializes in “mobilizing” support of “open-space” bond issues. Eight of their 16 directors are TPL staff or directors.

There was also the $2,750 CCW got from “Homeowners for Public Safety.” Now, how does “open space” relate to “public safety?” HPS operated out of a Columbia Falls mailbox, with Lawrence A. Anderson as treasurer. Four Whitefish residents funded HPS: “Illegible” Simpson, $50; Paul “Illegible”, $500; Terry Treweiler, $1,000; and Dan Weinberg, $3,000.

Treweiler, of course, is a lawyer and former Supreme Court justice. Weinberg is Whitefish’s former state senator.

HPS supported Flathead candidates Brittany MacLean, Scott Wheeler, Mark Holston and Steve Qunell, all Democrats. Statewide candidates HPS supported were Monica Lindeen, Denise Juneau and Steve Bullock, again, all Democrats.

However, both Treweiler and Weinberg had already individually donated $160 in the general election cycle to Brittany MacLean. Treweiler and his wife Carol both maxed out in the general election with Mark Holston.

See, under Montana law, individual contributions to candidates are limited to $160 per election. Want around that limit? Form a private PAC … then pipeline more money through the PAC. Creative? Plenty. Legal? Perfectly. Ethical? Hmmm.

Yet shuffling money like that happens all the time, not just in Montana, but in politics everywhere. PACs pop out of the woodwork every election, sling their fertilizer and disappear. By the time anyone figures out who bankrolled what and why, the election is over and it’s too late to matter.

It would be better to know who is tossing money around before the election; how much, what for, and who to, and then vote accordingly.

How could that happen?

Maybe we should kill the silly $160 limit, and in return require full disclosure of donations and expenditures in real time, say 48 hours from when transactions take place. Candidates and PACs would register with the state, be assigned an identifier code and password access and maintain their records through a secure portal to the Commission in Helena. All advertisements would have the identifier code, so voters could go straight to the data. Simple, honest and fair, right?

Sure. Maybe if the way campaigns are financed became simple, honest and fair, instead of a slimy money shuffle – politics might follow.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.