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Battle intensifies over Montana law

Groups fight state insistence on campaign finance clarity

Matt Gouras Associated Press

HELENA – Conservative groups have renewed their assault on Montana campaign finance rules with a new lawsuit, allegations of “frivolous investigations,” and attack mailers sent in apparent defiance of a stern ruling from the state’s political practices chief.

The Montana attorney general said the actions are part of a coordinated attack by national political activists who want to undo the transparency required in campaign finance regulations.

The issue of campaign finance has become a focal point of this election season.

First, Western Tradition Partnership – actively engaged in Montana elections as a nonprofit group – persuaded a state district court this month to lift Montana’s century-old ban on corporate political money. That decision is on appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.

Then the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices wrapped up a two-year investigation with a lengthy ruling that WTP has violated campaign finance law numerous times by failing to disclose money spent on pieces attacking candidates for office. That case has yet to be prosecuted.

WTP started sending the attack mailers against Democrats last week, saying simply it is in compliance with applicable laws. The group is still not disclosing the source of its money or how much it is spending.

Former Republican political operatives launched the Western Tradition Partnership in Montana before it was moved to Denver. The executive director is now based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth said he found evidence WTP was soliciting donations from overseas corporations.

WTP lauded tea party group Montana Shrugged for filing a federal lawsuit on Thursday challenging Montana’s authority to force spending disclosures.

That case is being handled by Indiana lawyer James Bopp, who helped launch the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case led the state court to agree with WTP that an outright ban on corporate spending is unconstitutional.

The new federal case argues that requiring reporting violates free speech rights.

Attorney General Steve Bullock said nothing in the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decision exempted corporations from disclosing political activity.

“This isn’t about a group of activists in Billings, Mont., trying to figure out what they can and can’t do. It is a coordinated national effort to dismantle election laws, and to tell voters across the country that they really have no right to know who is influencing elections,” Bullock said. “Don’t kid yourself. Fairness and the integrity of the elections in the American process – that is what is at stake.”

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