HELENA – The commissioner of political practices is asking a judge to penalize a group that was behind the effort to undo Montana’s ban on corporate political money as part of a dispute over campaign finance law.
The claim is the latest turn in an ongoing legal battle between state authorities and Virginia-based Western Tradition Partnership that could have big consequences for the way third-party money flows into state elections.
Western Tradition Partnership first filed a lawsuit last year piggybacking on a high profile U.S. Supreme Court case to undo Montana’s century-old restriction on corporate political spending.
The organization was later accused by the commissioner of political practices of failing to report expenditures. Western Tradition Partnership subsequently filed a lawsuit arguing it does not have to file disclosures on spending, as political committees are required to do.
The state said in a counterclaim filed last week that WTP violated disclosure laws on several occasions and should face stiff fines.
The attorney general said WTP first argued disclosure requirements are fine when it was fighting an outright ban on corporate spending, then filed a new lawsuit saying it thinks disclosure is also unconstitutional.
“Put simply, Western Tradition Partnership is engaged in a game of bait and switch with the people of Montana,” attorney general Steve Bullock said in a statement.
The counterclaim filed by the commissioner of political practice in the latest lawsuit builds on findings the office made last year. It argues WTP violated campaign finance law by failing to disclose money spent on pieces attacking candidates for office.
Former Commissioner Dennis Unsworth found that third-party groups need to disclose money spent advocating for the election or defeat of candidates because they are acting like political committees. The new commissioner, Jennifer Hensley, said she backs the finding.
“The people of Montana have determined time and time again they have a right to know who is behind efforts to influence elections how much money is being spent on those effort and where the money comes from,” she said. “I am fighting to make sure that right is enforced.”
The state said the penalty should be $500 or three times the contributions or expenditures for each violation once that is determined.
WTP says it should not be considered a political committee.
“Our position is the same as the founding fathers, who routinely engaged in political speech without handing over a list of their names to the government,” said WTP executive director Donald Ferguson. “The Constitution protects the right of the people to engage in political speech and activism without fear of retribution by government officials.”
Bullock’s office is separately planning to appeal to the Montana Supreme Court the district court decision that tossed out the state’s restriction on corporate political spending.
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