Don’t Shoot the Messenger

The only “Montana” groups with a significant presence in Election 2020’s media slugfest are facades only

By Dave Skinner

My first two columns on secret election finance focused on a couple of federal vessels-of-convenience we’ve never heard of, and probably never will again. This time, I want to examine activities by independent groups here in Montana.

The highest media profile by a Montana-based ad buyer in terms of presence, as it reads in the ending disclaimer, is “Good Jobs MT, Patrick Sweeney, Treasurer, 1633 Main Street, Suite A-370, Billings.”

Under Montana law, all political spenders, candidates or committees, are supposed to file timely electronic reports complying with reporting deadlines. Then, the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP) is supposed to post these reports to the Campaign Electronic Reporting System (CERS) in a timely manner, too. Unfortunately, not all the reports are being filed on time, nor do they get posted immediately, leaving a lot of blanks.

If “Good Jobs” rings a bell, it should. Good Jobs MT spent at least $3.125 million in the 2016 election. All except $100,000 came from the Democratic Governors Association to oppose incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock’s challenger, Greg Gianforte.

The treasurer then was a Billings teachers’ union officer, with the address almost the same, 1633 Main Suite A-354. Better office? Not exactly. 1633 Main Street in Billings, Suite A, is actually a UPS Store, these “suites” being private mailboxes.

How about 2020’s fresh new Good Jobs MT, in its shiny new UPS Store box? It was brought back to life in March by treasurer Stephen Hill and fellow officer Jessica Mackler, neither of whom are Montanans. Mr. Hill, somehow not surprisingly, is no less than the Chief Operating Officer of the Democratic Governors’ Association. Ms. Mackler? In 2018, as Director of Independent Expenditures for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC, another buyer of Montana TV time), she oversaw $90 million spent in 59 Congressional races. Earlier, Mackler was “President of American Bridge 21st Century, the largest opposition research and rapid response organization in Democratic politics.”

So where does Mr. Sweeney come in? In 2019, an NBC News story about American Bridge reveals a leaked letter to donors (anonymous by law) promising Bridge would “rely on local voices to serve as our messengers [in key contests, because] national voices are not always the most effective with the set of voters we [Who is ‘we?’] intend to target and persuade […]”

Patrick Sweeney is an attorney who spent 22 years as executive director of the Billings-based Western Organization of Resource Councils, an anti-development (and by ironic extension, anti-“good-jobs”) nonprofit. He also helped co-found Montana Conservation Voters, meaning Mr. Sweeney ranks as a well-known “local voice” in Montana politics.

But how much “voice” does Mr. Sweeney really have? Attached to the March registration filing for Good Jobs MT was a “firewall policy” letter regarding federal prohibitions against candidates “coordinating” with committees. In short, candidates and their staff can’t talk politics, especially “nonpublic” politics, with “independent” operatives until after the election. And, “[S]hould you have any questions, please direct them to Marc Elias (202-434-1609),” a top-ranked partner at Perkins Coie LLP, Hillary Clinton’s law firm.

If you had a question for Mr. Elias, he’d hang up, of course. But if Mr. Sweeney called, he’d probably learn that “independent” operatives, treasurers and committees can “coordinate” all they want.

At the end of August, for example, Montana COPP records show Good Jobs had raked in fully $4.225 million from DGA. $3.855 million is already gone, nearly all to Beltway-based media vendors, but about $420,000 went to “Montana 55+, Patrick Sweeney, Treasurer,” which in turn also got almost $18,000 from “Big Sky 55+, Patrick Sweeney, Treasurer.” Further, there’s $268,000 to Montana Conservation Voters Action Fund. All three have already run anti-Gianforte television ads, but records filed so far with COPP, especially for Big Sky 55 Plus, are incomplete. By the way, $11,113 went from Good Jobs to Perkins Coie for “legal services.”

The takeaway here? The only “Montana” groups with a significant presence in Election 2020’s media slugfest are facades only, with their “leaders” mere messengers for a narrative not written, not funded, not by, and absolutely not for, anyone in Montana.

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