Commissioner Expands ‘Dark Money’ Investigation

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The state commissioner of political practices said Wednesday he is expanding his ongoing investigation into allegations of illegal coordination between candidates and independent groups.

Jonathan Motl said he is looking into complaints against four more legislative candidates in the 2010 election cycle, and the corporations that allegedly offered them coordinated assistance.

Last month, Motl said he found evidence that so-called “dark money” groups illegally coordinated spending with one candidate without reporting the contribution. State law bans independent groups from coordinating their expenditures with candidates.

Wednesday’s filing said there is reason to believe the groups offered similar coordinated assistance with other Republican legislative candidates. Only one, Rep. Mike Miller, is still in office. Miller did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Motl said more complaints could be coming for 2010 and 2012 races, and cautioned 2014 candidates to pay attention to the rules.

Many of the cases stem from a complaint coming from a former Republican House candidate in Billings, Debra Bonogofsky. She alleged former state Rep. Dan Kennedy, also a Republican, coordinated mailers in 2010 to avoid campaign finance laws.

Kennedy has denied any wrongdoing.

Motl said last month he found that the conservative political group Western Tradition Partnership contributed “unreported, undisclosed” activity in support of Kennedy. WTP, now American Tradition Partnership, first gained notoriety for successfully challenging some state campaign finance laws, but is now subject to ongoing regulatory scrutiny that could include a fine of more than $300,000 in another case.

WTP has not recently returned calls seeking comment in the cases. A former attorney for the group has told the courts the nonprofit is no longer active, and suggested that collecting fines could be difficult.

Its attack ads have helped lead to a schism in the Montana Republican legislative caucus, with some lawmakers angry over being targeted with nasty mailers in campaign primaries. Some of those Republicans are backing a proposed ballot initiative aimed at shedding more light on campaign spending.

The expanded investigation again names WTP, and a couple of organizations that the state says are connected. Motl said he will be looking into the cases further to determine if there is sufficient evidence to find violations of law.

Motl said coordinated help from a third-party group is the same as a campaign contribution that faces strict limits and must be disclosed. The expensive third-party direct mail attacks would have exceeded those limits, even if it had been reported.

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