Donors to Dark-Money Group Include Media Mogul, Broker

Motl subpoenaed the organization's bank records and found 14 donors gave a total of $978,000

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — Donors to a secretive conservative group accused of breaking Montana’s campaign laws to influence the 2012 elections include a media mogul, a famous investment broker and leaders of the energy industry, according to records released Monday by the state.

The Montana Growth Network run by former state Sen. Jason Priest was registered as a tax-exempt, issue-advocacy group not required to report its spending or donors.

However, Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said the group was required to disclose its spending and donors because of its ads supporting the winner of the 2012 state Supreme Court election, former District Judge Laurie McKinnon, and opposing the two other candidates.

In his investigation, Motl subpoenaed the organization’s bank records and found 14 donors gave a total of $978,000 between 2011 and 2013. The donors to so-called dark money groups are rarely made public, but the commissioner released copies of the donation checks as part of a public-records request by The Associated Press and other news organizations.

The checks were so few and so large that donors had to support the Montana Growth Network’s election efforts, Motl said in his report, though he has not determined how much was spent on issues and how much on candidate advocacy.

“I never got past the fact that it was so few people giving so much money in a Supreme Court race in Montana,” Motl told the AP. “To have this amount of money spent in a judicial race is pretty stunning.”

Neither Priest nor another official with the Montana Growth Network, Chris Gallus, returned calls for comment.

The biggest checks came from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Charles Schwab of Charles Schwab Corp., each of whom gave $200,000. James Cox Kennedy, the head of Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, donated $100,000.

Schwab and Kennedy each own land in Montana.

An organization called Fair Oaks Financial based in Hamilton gave another $100,000. The company is no longer registered on the Montana Secretary of State’s website, but a Missoula Independent article from 2012 reported Schwab was Fair Oaks Finance’s principal agent.

Donations from energy industry companies and leaders include $25,000 Boich Companies, a co-owner in Signal Peak Energy; $75,000 from Continental Resources Inc., an oil company working in the Bakken fields; and $50,000 from the head of Slawson Companies in Colorado.

Other industry donors include Shale Exploration of Texas, Retamco Operating Inc. of Red Lodge, Frank Haughton of Billings and Great Northern Properties Limited Partnership of West Virginia.

David Dornsife, head of the steel company Herrick Corp., gave $90,000, investor Kenneth Siebel gave $8,000 and an individual named Matthew Woodhead of Reno, Nevada, gave $50,000.

The Montana Growth Network billed itself as a group that championed conservative causes to help like-minded candidates. It operated only during the 2012 election cycle.

Three people filed complaints with the commissioner’s office alleging that the group engaged in unreported campaign activity. Motl found that the group made campaign expenditures that it tried to pass off as issue ads not requiring disclosure, but in reality expressly advocated for or against candidates.

Motl has forwarded his findings to a prosecutor for potential charges. If the prosecutor declines to pursue the case, Motl can negotiate a settlement or file a civil complaint in court.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.