Judge Hits ‘Dark Money’ Group with $260,000 Penalty

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — A political group that has gained notoriety for challenging campaign restrictions on corporations was fined $260,000 on Tuesday after a judge said it failed to disclose spending.

The civil penalty levied against American Tradition Partnership, which is organized as a nonprofit corporation, demonstrated that new campaign freedoms extended to corporations don’t make them immune to state disclosure laws.

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock said in his order that the group has shown “complete disregard” for the laws of Montana, its courts, and the tradition of free and open elections.

The case involves attack ads mailed by the group in 2008 denouncing candidates. Officials say it did not report the spending as political activity to the state commissioner of political practices.

The group, which was headquartered in Montana then Colorado and the Washington, D.C., area, has challenged state campaign finance laws and targeted moderate Republican legislators and Democrats with harsh campaign ads.

The group was part of an effort that resulted in the 2012 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that nullified Montana’s century-old law that limited election spending. It also has won recent legal battles over political advertising, prompting a federal judge to strike down a Montana law requiring attack ads to list associated voting records and other state regulations.

It also asked Judge Sherlock in 2010, when it was called Western Tradition Partnership, to declare as unconstitutional several other laws requiring disclosure of campaign spending. The request came as the commissioner of political practices was investigating the group for failing to disclose.

The case turned against American Tradition Partnership when the attorney general’s office, representing the state, sought fines in the commissioner’s eventual findings.

Sherlock said Tuesday that ATP failed to follow up on its own case and disregarded court orders during the discovery process.

“Although ATP has cloaked itself in a patriotic and appealing name, it would appear its actions are anything but,” Sherlock wrote. “While ATP is a partnership, it is not acting in the American tradition.”

Earlier this year, the group’s former attorney James Brown said it was no longer active, and its operations were in flux. He suggested it could be hard to collect any potential penalties.

The group’s website was still functioning Tuesday, but a phone number was disconnected. It did not respond to an email request seeking comment.

The commissioner of political practices has recently opened investigations into activities involving the group in more recent elections. The commissioner has warned he could penalize candidates who received help from the group.