Lighting Up the Dark

By Beacon Staff

We’ve all heard the flapdoodle over conservative groups being targeted by the Internal Revenue Service, while liberal groups were not. But nearly lost in the clutter was a recent national Fox Business News segment about two previously unknown federal “nonprofits” that Fox’s David Asman declared were a “political vehicle for Brian Schweitzer.”

One was the Council for a Sustainable America (CFSA), a “Super PAC” quietly created in late 2008. Headquartered at P.O. Box 1742 in Helena alongside “Join Operation Brian Schweitzer,” the Council was as quietly disbanded in 2011, transferring all unspent funds that March to the American Sustainability Project (ASP), a 501(c)4 advocacy nonprofit located at a Washington, D.C. law firm – that kept the books for both groups.

Fox’s national coverage shamed some Montana journalists into actual work. They pretty much confirmed that then-Montana Commissioner of Political Practices David B. Gallik was simultaneously CFSA treasurer.

They also confirmed CFSA was funded mostly by a Democratic Governors’ Association donation, made four months after Governor Schweitzer became DGA chairman in December 2008.

Lee Newspapers reporter Chuck Johnson dug a little deeper, calling the governor’s cell phone for clarification.

Strangely, Johnson’s call was returned by Franklin P. Hall, formerly a consultant with DGA who left DGA in 2009 for Helena, ending up in a state-paid “senior advisor” staff position with Schweitzer. Mr. Hall told Johnson he rents Box 1742 and loaned its use to Schweitzer.

Right – Governor Schweitzer just wrangled the chairmanship of Stillwater Mining as an encore, but can’t rent a Post Office Box all by himself? I called a Postal Service staffer and confirmed that opening box-renter records needs a court order. Darn!

Denials and spin aside, these two entities are slush funds – carefully legal, mind you – tasked with helping DGA (not necessarily Brian Schweitzer) obscure its cash flows – in this particular case, over $400,000 in “dark money.”

Now, let’s take a closer look at Council successor American Sustainability Project, which as a “501(c)4” group, has to reveal its officers by law:

ASP president Constance J. Milstein is a New York City real-estate tycoon, donor of at least $2 million to federal Democratic efforts according to Federal Elections Commission data.

ASP treasurer Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor, runs a “government relations and advocacy” firm in Austin. He’s donated around a half-million dollars to federal Democratic campaigns, including $6,500 to the Montana Democratic Party.

ASP secretary Conrad S.P Williams, III is a class-action tort attorney with the St. Martin and Bourque law firm in Houma, Louisiana. His donations to Democrats seem to be in the mid-five figures, but what are his interests in Montana?

First, since 2008, Williams has donated around $14,000 to Montana Democrats, including $10,000 to the Montana Democratic Party, and $1,260 to Steve Bullock’s 2012 governor run – more money than he gave to Louisiana state Democrats in the same time frame.

Second, Williams is named in a Montana political-practices complaint filed in January 2012 by Montana Republican Party executive director Bowen Greenwood against Beau K. Wright, treasurer of Montana Hunters and Anglers, a state PAC pre-dating the federal Montana Hunters and Anglers PAC that flogged Congressman Denny Rehberg (R) last election.

The Montana GOP alleges that Wright, then a Lewistown advanced-placement government teacher, misidentified Williams, who was MHA’s largest single donor ($5,000 of $7,165 total raised in 2009).

Third? Well, here’s where it gets thick:

In January 2011, Chuck Johnson reported the appointment of Melanie S. Griggs as Montana State Banking Commissioner over 16 other applicants. The position opened Dec. 29, 2010, closed Jan. 7, and Griggs was hired Jan.14, 2011.

Johnson noted the address Griggs used on her application was the same “South Park Avenue home” as Franklin Hall, in turn freshly hired by Governor Schweitzer as a “senior adviser” Nov. 29, 2010. Johnson further noted that Griggs had been practicing law in Louisiana as Melanie G. LaGarde – at St. Martin and Bourque.

At the time, the Governor’s office denied any comment on the circumstances of Griggs’ hiring. Today, she’s still commissioner under new governor Steve Bullock – as Melanie Hall.

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